For those who haven’t read my introduction, let me briefly bring you up to speed. About three years ago, David Plotz wrote an absurdly wonderful blog series titled “Blogging the Bible.” Plotz read the whole Old Testament and blogged about it. His work was stunning, and I liked it enough to wished he had gone on to the New Testament. Plotz isn’t going to, and no one else really has, so I decided to do this myself. Welcome to The New Testament In Review.
I am not a Christian. I was raised Catholic and spent a couple of years in a very fundamentalist church, but realized along the way that Daoism is my path. So to me, the Bible is not a “Holy Book,” but a literary masterpiece. I will be reviewing it as such.
Enough preliminaries, let’s move on to:
The Gospel of Matthew
[toc hint=”table of contents” class=”toc-right” style=”width: 35%”]Once upon a time, I read the whole book of Matthew. I remember it much differently than it actually is written. I remember a Gospel filled with constant exhortations of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Verse after verse of “This is the son of God, bow before him!” I was surprised to find that this isn’t really true. There is some of that, and Matthew tries to tie Christ’s life to Old Testament scripture an annoying number of times. But what Matthew mostly writes about is the teachings of Christ. He captures the words that Jesus used, and describes how Jesus put these teachings into use every day. This is surprising and very effective.
Matthew also brings out the humanity of Jesus. Matthew really makes one see the non-divine side of Jesus, including Jesus’s fondness for word play, Jesus’s out-right mockery of the Pharisees, or Jesus’s anguish and fatalism towards the end of His life. Again, surprising and effective.
I now figure that people who claim to have read the whole Bible have another asterisk: verses 1-17 are another series of genealogy, and is just as interesting as the book of Numbers. Rather boring, dull genealogy. Lord knows I didn’t bother to read it, except to note that, according to Matt 1:16, Jesus wasn’t really from the lineage of David. If you accept that Jesus was born to a virgin. Joseph was from the house of David, *not* Mary. That is something I am pretty certain no one ever told me.
Verses 18-25 deal with Jesus’s birth and Joseph’s plan to ditch Mary with what he saw as an adulterer’s baby. The Angel of the Lord came to Joseph and demanded that Joseph stay with his family, because the baby was of the Holy Spirit, to satisfy propehsy that a virgin would become pregnant with Immanuel.
This whole chapter has a feeling of someone trying really hard to shoe horn Jesus’s life into the prophesies that existed. The Angel of the Lord popping into the story just to say “Hey, this is part of the prophecy” seems rather convenient, in my opinion. But I digress. Time to move on to:
The basic story of Matt 2 is well known and has become part of our culture. Three wise men of the East show up out of the blue because they want to worship the new “King of the Jews.” The current King, Herod, freaks out, because he doesn’t want to lose his kingdom. Herod tries to trick the wise men, asking where the boy is to be born. The new King is born in Bethlehem, of course, since that allows another prophecy to be fulfilled (a ruler and shepherd of the Jews coming from Bethlehem).
Actually, Matt 2 also tries to empasize scriptures and prophecies being fulfilled. Verse 6 is about the ruler coming from Bethlehem. Verse 15 fulfills “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Verse 18 is about Rachel mourning her lost children.” I could swear that Rachel was mourning her children in the Old Testament, but I’ll have to do a bit of research on that one. Verse 23 is the fulfillment of the “He will be called a Nazarene” prophecy.
As for the rest of the story: The Angel of the Lord (or “The Angel” from this point on) has Joseph flee to Egypt while Herod has all male infants and toddlers in the land slaughtered. After Herod dies, The Angel tells Joseph it is safe to return to Judah. Except Herod’s son Archelaus is now the king, and Joseph decides that isn’t very safe after all. Joseph flees once again, and ends up in Nazareth. And apparently likes it; he makes it the family’s new home.
I am finding that Matthew is a very supernatural book. Not only does The Angel pop up a lot, but the Holy Spirit God the Father make their first appearance in the New Testament. Chapter 3 actually has quite a lot stuffed into 17 verses. We open with John the Baptist (an early Grizzly Adams) warning everyone that the end of the world is nigh. Naturally, this fulfills another bit of scripture (Matthew really, really needs people to believe that Jesus’s story fulfills the Old Testament).
The baptist stays true to his name, baptizing everyone who travels to the river Jordan to see him. Except for the Pharisees and Sadducees, who are the New Testament’s Keystone Kops: completely clueless and ridiculed by everyone. John rips them a new one, telling them to go do something good instead of just talking about they are Abraham’s decendants, and therefore are holy.
Is Matthew the author who believes a person’s acts determine whether they are worthy or not? Maybe so, because the Baptist gives a spirited rant, saying that the “one who is coming after” him will cast anyone who is not doing good acts (“every tree not producing good fruit”) into an inextinguishable fire. This is the New Testament’s first Fire and Brimstone moment, but it is from John the Baptist, not Jesus. From what I can see, John isn’t exactly the most stable fellow…
Matthew now hits the fast-forward button, as we go from Jesus as a toddler to Jesus as a young man. Jesus makes John baptize him, even though John says that John is unworthy. As Jesus is baptized, the “Spirit of God” came down to rest on Jesus. God spoke from heaven to proclaim Jesus both His son, and good (harken back to Genesis, where god proclaimed his creations good).
Another stab of the fast-forward button, and Jesus is off into the wilderness. The Devil makes his first NT appearance here, as he tempts Jesus. Matt 4:1-11 are a great bit of storytelling. The devil taunts Jesus, first asking Jesus to show proof he is the Son of God, then offering Jesus the world if Jesus will bow to the Devil. Jesus answers by quoting scripture:
but on every word coming
out of the mouth of God.
Do not tempt the Lord your God
Worship and serve only the Lord
The Devil gives up at this point, and angels show up to take care of Jesus.
While Jesus is being tempted, John the Baptist is arrested. Matthew doesn’t deign to tell us why, so I’ll assume it is for wearing clothes made out of camel hair. ewww! Jesus returns, finds out that John has been arrested, and decides to take over the role as the Baptist. Jesus begins his ministry (fulfilling a prophecy made by Isaiah along the way), heals people, warns everyone that the end is nigh (2,000 years later and we’re still saying the same thing. Apparently “nigh” doesn’t mean what we think it means), and gathers a bunch of fishermen to be his disciples. Apostles. Whatever. Jesus becomes a rock star, and is flocked by people wherever he goes.
Chapters 5, 6 and 7
I just looked ahead and found that the book of Matthew has 28 chapters. I need to start summarizing better and be quite a bit less detailed.
Chapter 5 isn’t the best of places to start being concise, however. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 record Jesus’s Sermon On the Mount. These books contain 107 verses of the teachings of Christ. And what glorious teachings there are. Christ starts out with the Beatiutdes (verses 3-12). Everyone knows these (How blessed are those who are merciful, for it is they who will receive mercy!”), but read through and in context, they have a power that literally gives me goosebumps. This sermon shows just how great a Teacher Christ was.
Matt 5:13-16 extol Christ’s followers to share what he is teaching them with others (“let your light shine before people”).
Matt 5:17-48 is another powerful part of the sermon. Taken as a whole, it’s one of the most beautiful and educational parts of the New Testament. Jesus spells out in plain language what the scripture says, how he interprets that, and how people who want to follow him should live. True believers in Christ should read and follow as much of this part of the Sermon as possible. This includes reconciling differences with family, friends and enemies. It includes keeping promises (“let your word be “Yes for “Yes” and “No” for “No”). It includes forgiveness and humility (including the famous “whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well”). And it includes a very tough one to follow: “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.
One thing to note, however, is some of the severe conservative themes that Jesus also hits. These are obviously signs of the times that he lived in, and I think that they can be safely labeled archaic and be ignored. These include thinking lustful thoughts is the same thing as committing adultery” & divorced people having sex being the same thing as committing adultery. It is also apparently very, very evil to call someone a fool (you’ll be subject to hell fire” or to tell your brother “Raka!” (Raka?)
Matt 6:1-18 simply states not to try to bring attention to how great you are in your faith, but instead to practice serenely and in private (Lord knows I wish more Christians would listen to this one). There’s a break in the middle of this (Matt 6:9-13) for the Lord’s Prayer.
Chapter 6 finishes up with 15 verses on the same theme: Don’t worry about riches, just concentrate on your faith and god will provide. Riches can be anything from treasures (v. 17) to clothes (v. 28).
Christ sounds very Ecclesiastical in this part of the Sermon, actually. Some examples:
- 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
- 23 …If the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
- 25 Life is more than food, isn’t it, and the body more than clothing?
- 27 Can any of you add a single hour to your span of life by worrying?
- 28 And why do you worry about clothes? Consider the lilies in the field and how they grow. They don’t work or spin yarn
- 34 So never worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Chapter 7 wraps up the Sermon with a bang! First he warns again against hypocracy (don’t judge unless you want to be judged, worry about your own big sins before nitpicking what someone else is doing). Then, Christ goes on to give hope (keep trying and you will succeed – presumably spiritually, do unto others as you would want done to you, etc). Christ gives a few warnings – few people can walk the path, beware of false prophets, don’t think you can get into heaven just by saying you believe in me. And the final words of the Sermon (verses 25-26):
“Everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn’t obey them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and battered that house, and it collapsed, and its collapse was devastating. ”
Brilliant, truly remarkable.
New installments of The New Testament In Review will be posted each Monday and Thursday. The new posts will always be on my blog, http://biffster.org. The entire series will be accessible via http://biffster.org/ntir If you are one of my Facebook friends, you can get an advance preview on my Facebook page. You can also follow me (@biffster) on Twitter to be alerted to new posts.