The Bible According to George : Mathew thru ?

Sorry about the lateness of this entry. This may be the last of the According to George series. Enjoy!

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 starts with one of the Bible’s most famous features: the begats. Chapter one follows Christ’s heritage from Abraham through David to himself. This amuses me as a mathematician. As I have mentioned before, heritage was much more important to the ancients than it is in modern America, where I have always resided. What I have not commented on before, though, is the mathematical absurdity of this preoccupation. Others seem unaware of the arguments which follow, and I can only argue the numbers, so I leave it to you to find the nuances.

Every one of us, almost surely, has Abraham and David in our family tree. It is merely an example of the power of the exponential function. It’s mostly a matter of the size of the family tree.

Here’s how it works: to see it start with David. Suppose he only had two offspring. That would mean the family tree, by only the first generation after him, has three in it, him and both of his children (for the time being we will ignore the complications of sex). By the next generation (the second), if each of his offspring also has only two children, the tree has grown to seven: 4+2+1 = 2^3-1 The third generation will have a family tree of 2^4-1, or 15, if there are no overlaps and the pattern of each generation having two offspring continues. In general, subject to similar assumptions, the number of individuals in the family tree from David to any member of the nth generation after him is 2^(n+1)-1.

Of course, none of these numbers are reasonable. They are much too low for ancient realities, and these were ancient times. It’s worth noting, though, that  they will overlap much earlier than we might expect. Of course, we have not touched upon the complications that arise if we bring sex into the discussion.

Nonetheless, the fact is that everyone who was alive and reproductive only a relatively few generations ago has a family tree much bigger than the entire population of the world. For example, a family tree that is only thirty-three generations long has a total size of 2^34-1, or a number in excess of today’s world population. The train of lineage between David and Christ listed in Mathew is twenty-four generations long (the famous begats).

True, the effects of location and race will cut into the power of the exponential function, but it is easy to argue that a very small number of cross fertilizations will make the power of the exponential dominant. Besides, the power of two, used here as a base, is greatly outweighed by the real factor which depends upon the true number of offspring in each generation.

Most important, though, is to notice that the number of grandchildren (the 2nd generation after him)  of David would be 2^2, or 4, the number of great grandchildren (the 3rd generation after David) 2^3, or 8, and the number of members in the nth generation after him 2^n. 2^n goes to infinity only one step behind 2^(n+1), the driving force behind the family tree size discussed above. The number of great-great-great-. . . -great -grandchildren soon exceeds the size of the world’s population by itself.  Even accounting for overlaps, it seems to me, would allow the exponential function to dominate.

So, what’s the point? David is in all our family trees. You may, with reasonable assurance, claim you are a direct descendant of David, himself. The Israelites were mainly special in that they kept track of the, mostly male, specifics of the lineage that’s going backwards to David or Abraham, or whomever they wanted to trace back to. Besides, the whole issue with Christ seems a bit untoward, since the real debate revolves around whether his father is God Himself.

Which brings us to the 18th verse. That’s where the Bible first addresses Christ’s strange, as
reported, heritage. Everyone, it seems, agrees that Mary was Pregnant before she was married to Joseph. The Bible maintains that she conceived because of the Holy Ghost’s attention to impregnating her (I gather the Holy Ghost was a sort of randy version of God in those days). According to Mathew, Joseph knows not Mary until after Jesus is born, obeying the instructions received in a dream. This may be the origin of the phrase “in your dreams.”

At any rate, the story goes that Joseph was told in this dream that the father was the Holy Ghost and that he was supposed to marry Mary and name the child Jesus, in fulfillment of a prophet’s (which one is left unspecified) prophesy, but then points out that the kid’s name is supposed to be Emmanuel. Okay, in all honesty, I don’t get it either.

Here’s the story as related in Mathew: Mary gets pregnant before marrying Joseph. Joseph, before having a dream that features an angel from God, contemplates putting her away privately. In those days I gather that was considered to be the most humane way to deal with the situation. After the dream, though, Joseph believes the father is the Holy Ghost and marries Mary, but waits until after Jesus is born to consummate the marriage. The child’s name is dictated by the angel in the dream, by the way. It is predicted Jesus will save the Israelites from their sins. Or, perhaps I assume too much, for my Bible actually says “he shall save his people from their sins.” No specific mention of who “his people” refers to is made. In view of the holy heritage claimed for Christ, it seems to me that clarification is called for.

Chapter 2

Herod was king when Jesus was born. He apparently lived in Jerusalem, for that is where the “wise men” from the east first show up claiming they have seen the star announcing the birth of the “King of the Jews.” This news was not well received by Herod, who immediately sets about to find the child so he can kill him and remove all doubt, apparently, about just who is the “King of the Jews.”  Or, perhaps, he just wants to avoid an uprising.

His advisors say the birth is to be in Bethlehem, and Herod sends the wise men there in search of the Christ Child, with instructions to report back as soon as they have found him. They depart, and the whole thing about the three kings of Orient who travelled so far is born.

Joseph gets another dream, as do the wise men (the exact specifics of how they all get the information is not spelled out) and Joseph flees to Egypt with his new family of three, while the wise men return to their own lands without reporting to Herod.

Herod gets mad at the wise men’s deception and kills all the children under three and living near Bethlehem, based on information he’d gleaned from the wise men as to when they’d first seen the star. Of course, by that time Jesus is safely in Egypt. Later, after Herod is dead, Joseph gets yet another dream and returns to Jerusalem by a rather circuitous route–a route that is suspiciously coincidental with the many various predictions of the origins of the King of the Jews

Chapter 3

Chapter three is the story of Christ being baptized by John the Baptist. John the Baptist is an interesting character. He was apparently the original itinerant preacher who traveled the countryside baptizing people (before baptism had the cachet it currently does). He also dressed in camel hair and wore a leather loincloth, presumably to reinforce some aspect of a vow of poverty–or at least that is how I always understood it.

John recognizes Christ immediately on hearing he is coming to be baptized and, at first, refuses to see him, saying Christ should baptize him, not the other way around. Christ prevails, however, saying that they need to follow all the rules (how this communication takes place is not clarified). At the baptism Christ has his first Vision as he sees the heavens open and the spirit of God, like a dove, descends from heaven and alights on him. Then a voice comes from above saying “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

All of which is reported as fact, not as Vision. But none of the report says anything about whether anyone else perceived these occurrences or not, so I assume the reader is left to draw his own conclusions. Of course, I’ve only read through Mathew at this point, so the other Gospels may broaden my outlook.

In addition, my experience biases me. In 1986 I had a real-life Vision myself. I didn’t think I was being blessed by God, or anything. In fact, it was nothing like Christ’s experience–or, at least, very little like it, so far as I could see. It was a Vision of the end of all life on earth. The details are the stuff of a different narrative, though, and I will spare you them here. Suffice it to say only that mine shared a voice which seemed to come from the outside, an hallucination, which phenomena I have long recognized as being as real as reality, and a drive unmatched by anything else I have encountered in life.

So, whether fact or not, I have decided to regard this story as one of Christ’s own renditions, which, judging by my experience, he would have been compelled by his own experience to make numerous times in his lifetime. Finding it reported as fact in one of the Gospels does not surprise me. Having had a similar experience myself, I can attest to the power of having experienced it. Christ would most certainly have believed it to be fact and would have reported as such.

It hardly matters whether others believed the story one way or the other or not. Christ clearly believed he was the son of God, and his actions from here on out show that he behaved very much in accordance with that belief. Whether he is God’s son or not is, clearly, a matter of considerably heated debate to this day. In view of this, I think my interpretation on this point is reasonable.

Chapter 4

At any rate, immediately after what I shall refer to as Christ’s baptismal Vision, he goes into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Before the temptation, though, he first fasts for a long time, denoted in Biblical style by “forty days and nights.” Thereafter he is famously tempted in three ways: First, by the power which, presumably, comes with being the son of God; second by the protection of God guaranteed by virtue of being His son; and, finally, by the riches which could come with being the son of God if only he worshiped Satan. Christ, of course, will have none of it, and Satan retreats in disgrace as Christ berates him. The angels of God then come and minister to Jesus.

Hearing that John the Baptist has been imprisoned, Jesus goes to Galilee, which may or may not be the equivalent of fleeing. He stops for a time in Capernaum, which is fulfilling, somehow, of some prophet’s prophesy. While in Galilee he begins preaching and healing. He also recruits Peter, his brother Andrew, James, and his brother, John, as disciples. They all immediately leave their family businesses as fishermen to join him.

I am struck by the elaborate lengths to which the Bible seems to go in verifying Prophesies. Like  with most good prophets, the people quoted are usually ambiguous and the meaning of the text subject to a variety of interpretations. Also, some of the actions taken by Joseph, or, later, Jesus himself, are related as if taken specifically in order to fulfill prophesies. To wit, after mentioning the stop in Capernaum, Mathew says, in the King James version, “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias” and then follows with an ambiguous quote. I just think those putting together the Bible tried a little too hard to make it seem consistent.

Chapter 5-7

Chapter five is part of the famous Sermon On The Mount. Perhaps the most striking thing about this sermon is the fact that Mathew, at least, is not clear as to the audience. A careful reading makes one suspect it was delivered only to the Apostles, who I gather, would only number four at this time. I thought to read closely only in response to having read somewhere that this might have been the case and that the meaning of ‘blessed” might have only meant that “people like this are prime candidates for our ministry.”

That interpretation impressed me mostly as a rather cynical one. But it does a lot to explain a rather confusing set of blessings. For example, the first one,”Blessed are the the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” might mean nothing more than that “we will build our following on the support of the downtrodden.” Christ regularly uses “kingdom of Heaven” in this way elsewhere in his preachings, and it makes good sense in this context. Plus it turns out to describe what actually happened after Christ’s death better than most of the prophesies described in the Bible and alluded to earlier.

That said, the Sermon On The Mount summarizes, probably better than any of the numerous other things which are attributed to Jesus, the philosophy and teachings of Christ that so clearly differentiate Christianity from Judaism. Almost everything Jews value, judging by Samuel, Saul and David, Jesus repudiates in the Sermon On The Mount. One wonders why we so commonly see the New Testament paired with Proverbs and The Song of Solomon in publications, but never with the Sermon On The Mount. I, for one, would happily put up with the redundancy in exchange for the emphasis. The sermon, which carries on for three chapters, ending only at the end of chapter seven, deserves this much attention. Another very real possibility might be that the “blesseds” were aimed only at the disciples and the rest  was delivered to a larger audience.

I will attempt to make sense of or comment on the Sermon On The Mount only where I think my comments or interpretation may be helpful. Even this may seem to the reader as presumptuous. I apologize in advance, but it will be long, so that must also be included in the apology. One of Jesus’ strengths seems to have been speaking in ways that were not easily changed in meaning, so much of what follows will be taken straight from my Bible, or nearly so.

I think that, if the observations I have already made have any validity they probably lose that validity about at verse 20 of chapter five, were The Sermon On The Mount begins to make more sense if directed at the ordinary followers, not just at the Apostles

Verses 3 trough 11 of chapter 5 are the famous blesseds. I discussed audience earlier. By way of completeness, however, I summarize them here: the poor in spirit, those that mourn, the meek, those who hunger after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and all who are reviled or persecuted by men for standing up for Christ.

Each blessed is accompanied by a clause which explains that group’s reason for seeing their circumstance as a blessing rather than some form of curse. Of course, in the moe cynical interpretation, each of these are better understood as the reason each group is vulnerable to wanting to join the movement.

The verses through number twenty strike me as very good advice to potential leaders of any populist movement, as they, essentially, say you have to come across as being beyond reproach if you wish to be seen as leaders of a populist movement, so I see these as potentially aimed at the Apostles. It’s not bad advice, though, for anyone, so I can’t be sure. Also, a good deal of Christianity’s appeal has always been the level of adherence to its principles demonstrated by the low level adherent, so maybe it was intended for a broader audience.

In verses 21 through 47 Christ redefines most of the values that got the Israelites through the hateful days of the Old Testament. Instead of just “do not kill,” he advocates “do not get angry,” instead of “an  eye for an eye,” “turn the other cheek.” Over and over again he preaches peaceful, or, at least, passive, alternatives to what were formerly recommended hostile responses to perceived hostile provocations. Sometimes these are really only provocations to the culture itself. It is not without reason that he is known as the “Prince of Peace.”

Christ was clearly a radical–he attacked virtually everything in the Old Testament, despite many of those attacks taking the form of presenting alternatives. He always maintained he had come to fulfill the law, not to destroy it, but I think that defies what he actually did.

That he never wavered in his devotion to passivity, even when faced with torture, as was the case at his death, was surely one of the keys to his movement’s success. I will comment upon what many have listed as exceptions to this observation when they arise, but suffice it to say here that I know of no good examples of his failure in this regard. Maybe we spent more time in the New Testament than I thought, although I’m sure too much of our time was devoted to the writings of Paul. I’ve always thought of him as being an Old Testament kind of guy. The forces of the Old Testament may have succeeded in killing Christ, but his ideas long out-survived him, even though many have chosen to defy the ideals in the guise of adherence to the principles.

Well, as I write this I find myself needing to speak directly to the reader. This is the second time I have tried to translate the New Testament starting with Mathew. Both times I have found the task much harder than I thought it would be. Both times came immediately after trying to do the same thing for the Samuels and the start of First Kings. The first time I quit largely because of the contrast between Christ and the main characters in those books. Or, at least, that is how I remember it.

Truth be told, though, I did not remember having translated most of the stories that it seems I must have. Much of the general impression I had of Samuel and David in the second experience  were reflective of the first experience. But I have no recollection of having done most of the translation the first time. It was as if I had not seen most of what was being translated the second time.

My memory is often like this. I have few memories at all from my youth. There are, at least, large gaps in my memory. I was sick a lot as a child, but I only recall love and support from my parents. I’ve always thought I was exceptionally lucky in growing up in a pretty functional family in what must have been a largely dysfunctional time, what with prohibition, the depression, and the war and all. I’ve assumed I was just lucky, I guess.

But my wife wonders whether I might suffer from some form of Asperger’s’ Syndrome. I’ve largely dismissed her concern, though, as jealousy prompted from her having had a dysfunctional youth herself (her father, in particular, was pretty crazy), and my background in mathematics. Still, my son has disowned me, so maybe there’s something to it. The comment about the mote in one’s own eye comes to mind. At any rate, I definitely think in weird ways.

So, the difficulty I have translating the New Testament may, somehow, be connected to my own peculiarities. I certainly don’t feel anything like the hostility I did for the Old Testament. What I do want seems to be to recommend most readers read the New Testament themselves. I have found myself motivated to do just that.

Maybe what I can do is not so much”translate,” as summarize and comment. For instance, what follows the Sermon On The Mount is a litany of the many healings and several raisings from the dead attributed to Christ. For a great many people, both contemporary and ancient, these may be at least as important in the belief in Christ as the son of God as anything he might have done as a pacifist. But the rationalist in me makes subscription to such an interpretation, especially in view of the simple fact of the time lapse between events and the approval of the Gospels, hard. Perhaps the most I can honestly do is point out that we, by which I mean no human, know nothing about what is real and what is not. If I learned anything by having once taken acid, it was this. It’s all a mystery.

Shortly following the Sermon On The Mount Jesus begins teaching in parables. The parable of the sower is noteworthy because it is one of the few which has his explanation, delivered in response to a direct question from his disciples. Part of the reason Christ’s teachings have endured for so long, I believe, is that he so often taught in parables. He said himself that one either got the parable or not. My experience is that, more often than not, you just don’t get it. But maybe that’s just me. The strength of it, though, and the reason I say it may be part of why his teachings have been so robust, is that interpreters leave the words alone. What you get is mostly exactly what he said. Or so it seems to me.

As I continue reading the New Testament I realize that a great deal of the story of Christ lies with the reputation he got as a healer. This makes sense. His fame would spread as his abilities became widely known. One thing seems clear, the man they hung on the cross until dead must have been pretty famous.

A great deal of what he is credited with can be credited to the placebo effect, but not nearly all that is related in the Bible. Raising the dead, in a rational context, requires one to assume misdiagnosis of death, which can certainly be done. The braking of bread and resulting feeding of thousands and gathering more leftovers than was originally in the supply can be explained away with the possibility of contributions being added to the bounty by members of that mass. The stories are old, written down by questionable authority, and have been passed down verbally over many years before even adopted as official. If one does not wish to believe, there is always a way to rationalize it.

Oh yee of little faith! Perhaps I am one of those. Nonetheless, if he were only a man, he must have been one hell of one. I wish I had known him.

One other thing. While the Old Testament was a history, told as if it were dictated by God, the New Testament is more clearly religious. It is the story of a man who thought he was the son of God, told as if he really was. What is the truth? Who knows? Only our deaths will allow certainty to enter the situation. Until then, only the magic of faith can let us in. How strange is life.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *