Bob Schwartz

Tag: Christianity

Christmas: The Prequel (Infancy Gospel of James)

Gaudenzio Ferrari, The Annunciation to Joachim and Anna, 1544-45

Our canonical texts are largely silent about the events prior to and leading up to Jesus’ birth, but his unique standing as the Son of God led Christians to wonder about parts of the story left out.
Bart Ehrman

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
Joan Didion

Whether you are one who takes the events in the canonical gospels as history or story, there are certainly missing pieces in the narratives. Over the centuries, these gaps have been filled in by inspiring and imaginative “other gospels.”

The Infancy Gospel of James is a dramatic prequel to the Christmas story. It can be found in The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament, edited and translated by Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Pleše.

Bart Ehrman writes:

Of all the early Christian apocrypha, none played a larger a role in the theology, culture, and popular imagination of late antiquity and the Middle Ages than the Proto-Gospel of James. This is the Gospel “prior to” the Gospel, an account of the events leading up to and immediately following the birth of Jesus.

The focus of attention is on Jesus’ mother Mary, on her own miraculous birth, upbringing, young life, and engagement to Joseph. In addition, the account narrates, as a kind of Christian expansion and interpretation of the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, Mary’s continued virginity (demonstrated famously by a midwife’s postpartum inspection), and the opposition to the Christ child by King Herod, leading to the miraculous protection of John the Baptist and his mother, and the murder of his father, Zacharias, the high priest of the Jews, in the temple.

The account was probably written in the late second century and became particularly popular in the eastern part of Christendom….

For the most part the Proto-Gospel was not transmitted in the West because its portrayal of Jesus’ “brothers” as sons of Joseph from a previous marriage was roundly condemned by no less an authority than Jerome. In Jerome’s forcefully stated view, Jesus’ alleged brothers were in fact his cousins. This interpretation was closely tied to Jerome’s ascetic agenda: for him, not only was Mary a perpetual virgin, but Joseph—the earthly father of the Lord—was as well. The account of the Proto-Gospel was explicitly condemned in 405 CE by Pope Innocent I….

Our canonical texts are largely silent about the events prior to and leading up to Jesus’ birth, but his unique standing as the Son of God led Christians to wonder about parts of the story left out. If he was special, as shown by the fact that he was conceived by a virgin—what can we say about his mother? Who was Mary? What made her special? How was she herself born? How did she maintain her own purity, to make her a worthy “vessel” for the Son of God?…

Here Mary is not an impoverished Jewish peasant. Her father is the richest man in Israel and of royal blood. She herself is of impeccable morals and purity. Her purity is safeguarded from the time of her birth and demonstrated in her unusual upbringing, as she spends her young life, literally, in the temple, day and night, fed by the hand of an angel. The stories of the account demonstrate in particular her sexual purity. Not only is she a virgin at the time of her conception; she also remains a virgin, even after giving birth, as shown by the physical inspection of a skeptical midwife. Joseph himself never lays a finger on her. Moreover, he is not a poor carpenter, but an established building contractor. Finally, Mary’s spinning activity is not for money, it is to provide a curtain for the sacred temple of God.


From The Proto-Gospel of James (The Birth of Mary, the Revelation of James)

The Rich Joachim and His Self-Exile
1

(1) In the “Histories of the Twelve Tribes of Israel” there was a very wealthy man Joachim, who used to offer a double portion of his gifts to the Lord, saying to himself, “The portion that is my surplus will be for all the people, and the portion that is for forgiveness will be for the Lord God as my atonement.” (2) Now the great day of the Lord drew near, and the sons of Israel were offering their gifts. Reuben stood before him and said, “You are not allowed to offer your gifts first, since you have not produced any offspring in Israel.”

(3) Joachim was very upset and went away to consult the book of the twelve tribes of the people, saying to himself, “I will examine the Book of the Twelve Tribes of Israel to see if I am the only one not to produce offspring in Israel.” And he searched and found that everyone who was righteous had raised up offspring in Israel. Then he remembered the patriarch Abraham, that at the end of his life the Lord God had given him a son, Isaac.

(4) Joachim was very upset and did not appear to his wife, but went out to the wilderness and pitched his tent there. Joachim fasted for forty days and nights, saying to himself, “I will not come down for either food or drink until the Lord my God visits me. My prayer will be my food and drink.”

***

Some Angelic Visitations
4

(1) Then, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared and said to her, “Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer. You will conceive a child and give birth, and your offspring will be spoken of throughout the entire world.” Anna replied, “As the Lord God lives, whether my child is a boy or a girl, I will offer it as a gift to the Lord my God, and it will minister to him its entire life.”

(2) Behold, two angels came, saying to her, “See, your husband Joachim is coming with his flocks.” For an angel of the Lord had descended to Joachim and said, “Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down from here; see, your wife Anna has conceived a child.” (3) Joachim immediately went down and called his shepherds and said, “Bring me here ten lambs without spot or blemish, and the ten lambs will be for the Lord God; and bring me twelve young calves and the twelve calves will be for the priests and the council leaders, and bring a hundred male goats for all the people.”

(4) And behold, Joachim came with his flocks and Anna stood beside the gate and saw Joachim coming with his flocks; and running up to him she hung on his neck and said, “Now I know that the Lord God has blessed me abundantly. For see, the widow is no longer a widow and I who am childless have conceived a child.” Then Joachim rested the first day in his home.

The Birth of Mary
5

(1) On the next day he brought his gifts as an offering, saying to himself, “If the Lord is gracious to me, the leafed plate of the priest’s mitre will make it known to me.” And Joachim offered his gifts and looked closely at the priest’s leafed mitre as he went up to the altar of the Lord; and he saw no sin in himself. Joachim then said, “Now I know that the Lord God has been gracious to me and forgiven me all my sins.” He went down from the temple of the Lord justified and came to his house.

(2) Some six months came to completion for Anna; and in the seventh month she gave birth. She asked the midwife, “What is it?” The midwife replied, “A girl.” Anna said, “My soul is exalted today.” And she laid the child down. When the days came to completion, Anna washed off the blood of her impurity, gave her breast to the child, and named her Mary.

Mary’s Early Life
6

(1) The child grew stronger every day. When she was six months old, her mother set her on the ground, to see if she could stand. She walked seven steps and came to her mother’s bosom. Her mother lifted her up and said, “As the Lord my God lives, you will not walk at all on this ground until I have taken you up to the temple of the Lord.” Then she made a sanctuary in her bedroom and did not allow anything impure or unclean to pass through her lips. And she called the undefiled daughters of the Hebrews and they entertained her.

(2) When the child had her first birthday, Joachim held a great feast and invited the chief priests, priests, scribes, council leaders, and all the people of Israel. Joachim brought the child out to the priests and they blessed her, saying, “O God of our fathers, bless this child and give her a name that will be famous forever, to all generations.” And all the people replied, “Let it be so! Amen.” They brought her to the chief priests, and they blessed her, saying, “O Most High God, look upon this child and bless her with an ultimate blessing, equal to none.”

(3) Her mother took her back to the sanctuary in her bedroom and nursed the child. And Anna made a song to the Lord God, saying, “I will sing a holy song to the Lord my God, for he has visited me and removed from me the reproach of my enemies. The Lord my God has given me the fruit of his righteousness, unique and abundant before him. Who will report to the sons of Reuben that Anna is now nursing a child? Listen closely, you twelve tribes of Israel: Anna is nursing a child!” And she laid her down to rest in the bedroom of her sanctuary and went out to serve the others. When the feast ended they descended happy, and they gave glory to the God of Israel.

***

Joseph Becomes Mary’s Guardian
8

(1) Her parents went away marveling, praising and glorifying God, the Master, that the child did not turn back. Mary was in the temple of the Lord, cared for like a dove, receiving her food from the hand of an angel.

(2) But when she reached her twelfth birthday, the priests held a council and said, “See, Mary has become twelve years old in the Lord’s temple. What then shall we do with her, to keep her from defiling the sanctuary of the Lord our God?” They said to the chief priest, “You have stood on the Lord’s altar. Go in and pray about her, and we will do whatever the Lord God reveals to you.” (3) The chief priest went in, taking the robe with twelve bells into the Holy of Holies; and he prayed about her. And behold, an angel of the Lord appeared and said to him, “Zacharias, Zacharias, go out and gather the widowers of the people, and have each of them bring a rod; she will become the wife of the one to whom the Lord God gives a sign.” The heralds went out to all the countryside of Judea and the trumpet of the Lord was blown, and see, everyone came running.

***

Mary Spins for the Curtain in the Temple
10

(1) Then the priests held a council and said, “We should make a curtain for the Lord’s temple.” The priest said, “Call to me the undefiled virgins from the tribe of David.” The servants went out looking for them and found seven virgins. The priest then remembered that the child Mary was from the tribe of David, and that she was undefiled before God. The servants went out and led her back. (2) And they brought them into the Lord’s temple. And the priest said, “Cast lots before me to see who will spin the gold, the asbestos, the fine linen, the silk, the sapphire blue, the scarlet, and the true purple.” Mary drew the lot for the true purple and the scarlet, and taking them she returned home. At that time Zacharias became silent. Samuel took his place, until Zacharias spoke again. And Mary took the scarlet and began to spin it.

The Annunciation
11

(1) Mary took a pitcher and went out to fetch some water. And behold, she heard a voice saying, “Greetings, you who are favored! The Lord is with you. You are blessed among women.” Mary looked around, right and left, to see where the voice was coming from. She then entered her house frightened and set the pitcher down. Taking up the purple she sat on her chair and began to draw it out. (2) And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before her and said, “Do not fear, Mary. For you have found favor before the Master of all. You will conceive a child from his Word.” But when she heard this she asked herself, “Am I to conceive from the living Lord God and give birth like every other woman?” (3) The angel of the Lord said to her, “Not so, Mary. For the power of God will overshadow you. Therefore the holy one born from you will be called the Son of the Highest. And you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Mary replied, “Behold the slave of the Lord is before him. May it happen to me as you have said.”

Mary Visits Elizabeth
12

(1) She made the purple and the scarlet, and brought them to the temple. The priest took them and blessed her, “Mary, the Lord God has made your name great; you will be blessed among all the generations of earth.”

(2) Full of joy, Mary went off to her relative Elizabeth. She knocked on the door; and when Elizabeth heard she cast aside the scarlet and ran to the door. When she opened it she blessed Mary and said, “How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For see, the child in me leapt up and blessed you.” But Mary forgot the mysteries that the archangel Gabriel had spoken to her, and gazed at the sky and said, “Who am I, Lord, that all the women of earth will bless me?”

(3) She stayed with Elizabeth for three months. Day by day her own belly grew. Mary then returned home in fear, and hid herself from the sons of Israel. She was sixteen when these mysteries happened to her.

Joseph Discovers Mary’s Condition
13

(1) When she was in her sixth month, behold, Joseph returned from his buildings. As he came into the house he saw that she was pregnant. Striking his face he cast himself to the ground on sackcloth, weeping bitterly and saying, “How can I look upon the Lord God? How can I utter a prayer for this young girl? For I received her from the temple of the Lord God as a virgin, but I did not watch over her. Who has preyed upon me? Who has done this wicked deed in my home and defiled the virgin? Has not the entire history of Adam been summed up in me? For just as Adam was singing praise to God, when the serpent came and found Eve alone, and led her astray, so too has this now happened to me.”

(2) Joseph rose up from the sackcloth, called Mary, and said to her, “You who have been cared for by God: why have you done this? Have you forgotten the Lord your God? Why have you humiliated your soul—you who were brought up in the Holy of Holies and received your food from the hand of an angel?” (3) But she wept bitterly and said, “I am pure and have not had sex with any man.” Joseph replied to her, “How then have you become pregnant?” She said, “As the Lord my God lives, I do not know.”

***

The Authorities Discover Mary’s Condition
15

(1) But Annas the scribe came to see him and said, “Joseph, why have you not appeared before our council?” Joseph replied, “I was tired from my journey and rested on my first day back.” Annas then turned and saw that Mary was pregnant. (2) He left and ran off to the priest and said to him, “Joseph, the one you have vouched for, has committed a great sin.” The priest replied, “What has he done?” He said, “He has defiled the virgin he received from the Lord’s temple and has stolen her wedding rights. And he has not revealed this to the sons of Israel.” The priest asked, “Joseph, has done this?” Annas the scribe replied, “Send some servants, and you will find that the virgin is pregnant.” The servants went off and found her just as he had said. They brought her back to the judgment hall, along with Joseph.

(3) The high priest said to her, “Mary, why have you done this? Why have you humiliated your soul and forgotten the Lord your God? You who were brought up in the Holy of Holies and received your food from the hand of an angel, and heard his hymns, and danced before him—why have you done this?” But she wept bitterly and said, “As the Lord my God lives, I am pure before him and have not had sex with any man.”

(4) The priest then said, “Joseph, why have you done this?” Joseph replied, “As the Lord my God lives, I am pure toward her.” The priest said, “Do not bear false witness, but speak the truth. You have stolen her wedding rights and not revealed it to the sons of Israel; and you have not bowed your head under the mighty hand that your offspring might be blessed.” Joseph kept his silence.

***

The Journey to Bethlehem
17

(1) An order went out from the king, Augustus, that everyone from Bethlehem of Judea was to be registered for a census. Joseph said, “I will register my sons. But what should I do about this child? How should I register her? As my wife? I would be too ashamed. As my daughter? The sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter. This day of the Lord will turn out as he wishes.”

(2) He saddled the donkey and seated her on it; and his son led it along, while Samuel followed behind. When they approached the third milestone, Joseph turned and saw that she was gloomy. He said to himself, “Maybe the child in her is causing her trouble.” Then Joseph turned again and saw her laughing. He said to her, “Mary, why is it that one time I see you laughing and at another time gloomy?” She replied, “Because my eyes see two peoples, one weeping and mourning and the other happy and rejoicing.”

(3) When they were half way there, Mary said to him, “Joseph, take me down from the donkey. The child inside me is pressing on me to come out.” He took her down from the donkey and said to her, “Where can I take you to hide your shame? For this place is a wilderness.”

Joseph Watches Time Stand Still
18

(1) He found a cave there and took her into it. Then he gave his sons to her and went out to find a Hebrew midwife in the region of Bethlehem.

(2) But I, Joseph, was walking, and I was not walking. I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still, and into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed, and the birds of the sky were at rest. I looked down to the earth and saw a bowl laid out for some workers who were reclining to eat. Their hands were in the bowl, but those who were chewing were not chewing; and those who were taking something from the bowl were not lifting it up; and those who were bringing their hands to their mouths were not bringing them to their mouths. Everyone was looking up. I saw a flock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still. The shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand remained in the air. I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking. Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course.

The Birth of Jesus and the Witness of the Midwives
19

(1) I saw a woman coming down from the hill country, and she said to me, “O man, where are you going?” I replied, “I am looking for a Hebrew midwife.” She asked me, “Are you from Israel?” I said to her, “Yes.” She asked, “Who is the one who has given birth in the cave?” I replied, “My betrothed.” She said to me, “Is she not your wife?” I said to her, “She is Mary, the one who was brought up in the Lord’s temple, and I received the lot to take her as my wife. She is not, however, my wife, but she has conceived her child by the Holy Spirit.” The midwife said to him, “Can this be true?” Joseph replied to her, “Come and see.” And the midwife went with him.

(2) They stood at the entrance of the cave, and a bright cloud overshadowed it. The midwife said, “My soul has been magnified today, for my eyes have seen a miraculous sign: salvation has been born to Israel.” Right away the cloud began to depart from the cave, and a great light appeared within, so that their eyes could not bear it. Soon that light began to depart, until an infant could be seen. It came and took hold of the breast of Mary, its mother. The midwife cried out, “Today is a great day for me, for I have seen this new wonder.”

(3) The midwife went out of the cave and Salome met her. And she said to her, “Salome, Salome, I can describe a new wonder to you. A virgin has given birth, contrary to her natural condition.” Salome replied, “As the Lord my God lives, if I do not insert my finger and examine her condition, I will not believe that the virgin has given birth.”

***

The Visit of the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents
21

(1) And behold, Joseph was ready to go into Judea. But there was a great disturbance in Bethlehem of Judea. For magi came saying, “Where is the king of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and we have come to worship him.”

(2) When Herod heard, he was troubled; and he sent servants to the magi. He then summoned the high priests and asked them in the praetorium, “What does Scripture say about where the messiah is to be born?” They replied, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for that is what is found in Scripture.” He then released them and asked the magi, “What sign did you see concerning the king who has been born?” The magi said, “We saw a magnificent star shining among these stars and overshadowing them, so that the other stars disappeared. And thus we knew that a king had been born in Israel, and we came to worship him.” Herod replied, “Go and look for him. If you find him, let me know, that I too may come to worship him.”

(3) The magi then left, and behold, the star they had seen in the east preceded them until they entered the cave, and it stood over the entrance of the cave. The magi saw the child with its mother, Mary, and they took from their packs gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (4) When they were warned by a revelation from an angel not to enter Judea, they went home another way.

***

The Death of Zacharias
23

(1) Herod was looking for John, and he sent servants to Zacharias, saying, “Where have you hidden your son?” He answered them, “I am a minister of God, constantly attending his temple. How could I know where my son is?” (2) The servants left and reported everything to Herod. Herod became angry and said, “His son is about to rule Israel.” He sent his servants back to him to say, “Tell me the truth: where is your son? For you know that I can shed your blood with my hand.” The servants went to report these things to him. (3) Zacharias responded, “I am God’s witness if you shed my blood. For the Master will receive my spirit, since you will be shedding innocent blood in the forecourt of the Lord’s temple.” Zacharias was murdered around dawn, but the sons of Israel did not know that he was murdered.

***

Epilogue
25

(1) But I James, the one who has written this account in Jerusalem, hid myself away in the wilderness when there was a disturbance at the death of Herod, until the disturbance in Jerusalem came to an end. There I glorified God, the Master, who gave me the wisdom to write this account.

(2) Grace be with all those who fear the Lord. Amen.

© Oxford University Press 2014

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A 7-year-old girl dies in U.S. custody. The White House disclaims responsibility. The White House needs lessons in logic. And compassion.

When I was hungry you gave me to eat
When I was thirsty you gave me to drink
Whatever you do to the least, you do it to Me

Washington Post:

Trump administration not to blame for ‘tragic’ death of 7-year-old girl in Border Patrol custody, White House says

A White House spokesman on Friday called the death of a 7-year-old girl in Border Patrol custody a “tragic situation” but said the Trump administration is not to blame and called on Congress to “disincentivize” migrants from making long treks to the southern U.S. border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Thursday that the girl from Guatemala died of dehydration and shock after she was taken into custody last week for crossing from Mexico into the United States illegally with her father and a large group of migrants along a remote span of New Mexico desert.

Asked by a reporter if the administration is “taking any responsibility for the girl’s death,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said: “Does the administration take responsibility for a parent taking a child on a trek through Mexico to get to this country? No.”

According to CBP records, the girl and her father were detained about 10 p.m. Dec. 6 south of Lordsburg, N.M., as part of a group of 163 people who approached U.S. agents to turn themselves in.

More than eight hours later, the child began having seizures, CBP records show. Emergency responders, who arrived soon after, measured her body temperature at 105.7 degrees. According to a statement from CBP, she “reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days.”

She died less than 24 hours after being transported by helicopter to a hospital in El Paso.

Here is the missing logic:

It is stipulated that the girl died in part from dehydration, also possibly from malnutrition.
It is stipulated by the U.S. CBP that she had not eaten or consumed water for several days.
The CPB had her in custody for eight hours before she showed symptoms.
During the eight hours she was in custody, she could have been given water and food, but apparently wasn’t.
Therefore, CPB could have done something to help prevent the death but didn’t, which indicates some responsibility.

As for the missing compassion, last night the White House held its grand Christmas Party. Maybe somehow, sometime, during the season, they will learn something. Miracles do happen.

“Honoring Pittsburgh synagogue victims, Pence appears with ‘rabbi’ who preaches, ‘Jesus is the Messiah’”

 

Washington Post:

Two days after the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, Vice President Pence bowed his head at a rally on Monday in Michigan as a religious leader who casts himself as a “rabbi” offered a prayer for the victims in Pittsburgh.

But the man who shared a stage with Pence, Loren Jacobs, preaches Messianic Judaism, a tradition central to Jews for Jesus, a group condemned by Jewish leaders as faux Judaism that seeks to promote Christian evangelism. The major Jewish denominations join the state of Israel in viewing followers of Messianic Judaism as Christian, not Jewish.

His appearance drew outrage on social media.

When I read this story, my reaction—I am not kidding—was: Oh Jesus!

I haven’t covered this issue of messianic Judaism much, though I’ve talked with others about it plenty. The last time I wrote about it was in discussing Roy Moore.  You may recall that his controversial and unsuccessful run for the Senate, along with including questions about Moore’s inappropriate behavior with a young woman, also included claims that Moore was anti-Semitic. To counter the charge, Moore’s wife pointed to their having a Jewish attorney. It turned out that the attorney was a messianic Jew.

The Post story does a good job of outlining the issue. Suffice it to say that if you believe that Jesus was the Jewish messiah, you are free to believe that. But according to any accepted normative theology held by any Jews, Jesus was not the Jewish messiah, and believing that he was makes you by definition not Jewish. (To go into a little more detail, a number of Jews historically gave up on the coming of any messiah, while a small minority still believe in the future possibility of a messiah. Jesus has no place in either of those schemes.)

Along with the question of whether the “rabbi” Pence invited was actually a rabbi or a Jew, the whole approach is inappropriate by any spiritual or humane lights. That is, under the tragic and sensitive circumstances, bringing this person to that event and having him say what he said (including endorsing Republicans) was about as un-Jesus-like as anything imaginable. Pence’s “rabbi” is no Jew, and with this stunt, neither Pence nor his “rabbi” appear to be very good Christians either.

What Some American Christians Can Learn From Mexican Catholics

Mexico has the second largest Catholic population in the world. With over 100 million Catholics, 91% of Mexicans are Catholic.

There is a migrant caravan of thousands currently heading north through Mexico. I saw a Mexican policewoman giving water to migrants. I saw Mexicans giving food and clothing to migrants.

Forget about the circumstances and politics of this particular migration. Maybe your family history does not include those who had to endure a long and arduous journey to get away from something bad or seek something better—or both. Maybe your family history does.

Forget about what we learn almost daily about the Catholic Church and hidden institutional corruption and perversion. Many in the Church still try to closely follow the teachings of Jesus and the compassion of the Holy Mother—maybe more in Mexico than anywhere.

Thirst, hunger, exposure, suffering. Christians claim to understand these through the example of a savior painfully dying on the cross yet to the end demanding love and compassion, no questions asked. This is something some American Christians—some prominent and powerful American Christians—seem to hypocritically ignore. This is something some Mexican Catholics seem to remember and live by.

Who damaged him?: “Trump cites as a negotiating tool his policy of separating immigrant children from their parents.”

It is the kind of question we usually ask about serial killers and genocidal dictators, not about the President of the United States: who damaged Trump so tragically? Was it his parents? Satan? Or did he invent himself in the form of a toxic monster? (My thought, which may be suggested in a future post, is that Trump may be the Antichrist. But that’s for later.)

Washington Post:

President Trump has calculated that he will gain political leverage in congressional negotiations by continuing to enforce a policy he claims to hate — separating immigrant parents from their young children at the southern border, according to White House officials.

On Friday, Trump suggested he would not change the policy unless Democrats agreed to his other immigration demands, which include funding a border wall, tightening the rules for border enforcement and curbing legal entry. He also is intent on pushing members of his party to vote for a compromise measure that would achieve those long-standing priorities.

Trump’s public acknowledgment that he was willing to let the policy continue as he pursued his political goals came as the president once again blamed Democrats for a policy enacted and touted by his own administration.

The real tragedy is not that Trump is trying to reshape America as his personal hell on earth, for his purposes. The tragedy is how many Americans, including so many Republican leaders and people of supposed faith, are willing to join him in that effort and cheer him on.

As with all monsters, political and criminal, the question is not really how they became the monsters they are. The question is what, if anything, we do about it.

The Very Small People Running America

The people running America are very small, starting with the president, and continuing down through his administration and his Republican supporters.

What does small mean?

Let us put it in terms these people will understand, since practically all of them claim to be faithful, most of them faithful Christians:

So God created mankind in his own image.
Genesis 1:27

That is, of course, aspirational. Not that people will be able to reach godlike heights of compassion and care. But that is the constant goal—interrupted by the shortfalls we are all subject to, being human as we are.

But maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Maybe God is petty and ignorant, uncaring and uncompassionate. In which case, those running America are being faithful, acting so small in the image of a very small God.

Or maybe they don’t understand the very first chapter of the Bible they embrace, or maybe they ignore it or skip it. Maybe they don’t understand, ignore or skip the entire Bible.

Anyway, these are very small people, faithful or just pretending to be. Way too small to be doing such a big job.

L’dor Vador (Ramadan)

L’dor Vador (Ramadan)

Jews begat
Christians begat
Muslims.
Thousands became
Millions became billions.
Blessed and blind warriors
Pages of holy books
Edged in gold
Sharp as swords.
Angry and bitter blood transmutes
To sweet water in the scorching desert
Of seeking souls.

©

Note: We are in the midst of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, commemorating the first revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad. It is sad astonishment to students of all three Abrahamic faiths to see how zealously ignorant and contentious some of the faithful of each may be to each other. (Jews who will not dare to touch, let alone read, the New Testament; Jews and Christians who will not dare to touch, let alone read, the Qur’an.)

In fact, each faith has produced extraordinary core texts that should be the first stop for anyone claiming to know anything—not only about the other, but about their own traditions. The golden threads of Judaism are woven into Christianity, the golden threads of Judaism and Christianity are woven into Islam. The ugliness and terror are man-made; the best parts are from the compassionate and caring.

L’dor vador. From generation to generation. One family.

Nine Prayers: For Those We Like, Love or Suffer When We Think Of

Thomas Merton’s final book, Contemplative Prayer, was published in 1969, a year after his accidental death. In 1995, Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh added an introduction. He wrote about his admiration for Merton and about distinctions between Christian and Buddhist prayer:

I first met Thomas Merton in 1966. It is hard to describe his face in words, to write down exactly what he was like. He was filled with human warmth. Conversation with him was so easy. When we talked, I told him a few things, and he immediately understood the things I didn’t tell him as well. He was open to everything, constantly asking questions and listening deeply. I told him about my life as a Buddhist novice in Vietnam, and he wanted to know more and more.

Our approach to prayer in Buddhism is a little different from that of Christianity. We practice silent meditation, and we try to practice mindfulness in everything we do, to awaken to what is going on inside us and all around us in each moment. The Buddha taught: “If you are standing on one shore and want to cross over to the other shore, you have to use a boat or swim across. You cannot just pray, ‘Oh, other shore, please come over here for me to step across!’” To a Buddhist, praying without also practicing is not real prayer.

At the end of the Introduction, he offers a comprehensive set of nine prayers—prayers beyond any sectarian tradition, and prayers that include “the one we suffer when we think of.”


Nine Prayers
Thich Nhat Hanh
From Introduction to Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton

1.
May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May he/she be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May they be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
2.
May I be free from injury. May I live in safety.
May he/she be free from injury. May he/she live in safety.
May they be free from injury. May they live in safety.
3.
May I be free from disturbance, fear, anxiety, and worry.
May he/she be free from disturbance, fear, anxiety, and worry.
May they be free from disturbance, fear, anxiety, and worry.
4.
May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.
May he/she learn to look at him/herself with the eyes of understanding and love.
May they learn to look at themselves with the eyes of understanding and love.
5.
May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.
May he/she be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in him/herself.
May they be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in themselves.
6.
May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.
May he/she learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in him/herself.
May they learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in themselves.
7.
May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.
May he/she know how to nourish the seeds of joy in him/herself every day.
May they know how to nourish the seeds of joy in themselves every day.
8.
May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
May he/she be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
May they be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
9.
May I be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.
May he/she be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.
May they be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.

He/she: First the person we like, then the person we love, then the person who is neutral to us, and finally the person we suffer when we think of.

They: The group, the people, the nation, or the species we like, then the one we love, then the one that is neutral to us, and finally the one we suffer when we think of.

The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas—sometimes referred to as the Fifth Gospel—is one of a number of ancient texts about the life and words of Jesus that did not become part of the New Testament canon. Many of these, including Thomas, can be found in Marvin Meyer’s volume The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus: The Definitive Collection of Mystical Gospels and Secret Books about Jesus of Nazareth. Meyer, a brilliant scholar and translator who was an eminent expert on these gospels, explains:

The Gospel according to Thomas is an ancient collection of sayings of Jesus said to have been recorded by Judas Thomas the Twin. Unlike other early Christian gospels, which typically consist of narrative accounts interpreting the life of Jesus of Nazareth and culminating in descriptions of his death, the Gospel of Thomas focuses specifically upon sayings of Jesus. The document claims that these sayings themselves, when properly understood, communicate salvation and life: “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death” (saying 1).

The Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas came to light with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, within which the Gospel of Thomas is to be found as the second tractate, or document, of Codex II. According to Muhammad Ali of the al-Samman clan, who has told his story to James M. Robinson, this remarkable manuscript discovery took place around December 1945….

As a gospel of wisdom, the Gospel of Thomas proclaims a distinctive message. In contrast to the way in which he is portrayed in other gospels, particularly New Testament gospels, Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas performs no physical miracles, reveals no fulfillment of prophecy, announces no apocalyptic kingdom about to disrupt the world order, and dies for no one’s sins. Instead, Thomas’s Jesus dispenses insight from the bubbling spring of wisdom (saying 13), discounts the value of prophecy and its fulfillment (saying 52), critiques end-of-the-world, apocalyptic announcements (sayings 51, 113), and offers a way of salvation through an encounter with the sayings of “the living Jesus.”

The readers of the Gospel of Thomas are invited to join the quest for meaning in life by interpreting the oftentimes cryptic and enigmatic “hidden sayings” of Jesus. They are encouraged to read or hear the sayings, interact with them, and discover for themselves the interpretation and meaning. Saying 2 describes the vicissitudes of such a quest for insight: “Jesus said, ‘Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be troubled. When one is troubled, one will marvel and will reign over all’”. That is to say, the quest for meaning is to be undertaken with commitment; and while the way taken may be upsetting, people will attain insight and rest if only they persevere. For it is in the quest and through the quest that people find themselves and God. Then, according to the Gospel of Thomas, they discover that God’s kingdom is not only outside them but also inside them, that they are “children of the living father” (saying 3), and that they are essentially one with the savior. Saying 108 makes this point by using mystical language: “Jesus said, ‘Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to that person.’”

Following are a few of the sayings; spiritual explorers are urged to find and read them all. Some sayings will seem familiar, sounding much like famous sayings found in the canonical gospels. Others will be new, obscure and mysterious—as they are meant to be.


The Gospel of Thomas

(2)
Yeshua said,
Seek and do not stop seeking until you find.
When you find, you will be troubled.
When you are troubled,
you will marvel and rule over all.

(5)
Yeshua said,
Know what is in front of your face
and what is hidden from you will be disclosed.
There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.

(7)
Yeshua said,
Blessings on the lion if a human eats it,
making the lion human.
Foul is the human if a lion eats it,
making the lion human.
[Meyer’s note: This obscure saying seems to appeal to the lion as a symbol of all that is passionate and bestial: the passions may either be consumed by a person or consume a person.]

(18)
The students said to Yeshua,
Tell us how our end will be.

Yeshua said,
Have you discovered the beginning and now are seeking the end?
Where the beginning is, the end will be.
Blessings on you who stand at the beginning.
You will know the end and not taste death.

(26)
Yeshua said,
You see the speck in your brother’s eye
but not the beam in your own eye.
When you take the beam out of your own eye,
then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

(31)
Yeshua said,
A prophet is not accepted in the hometown.
A doctor does not heal those who know the doctor.

(34)
Yeshua said,
If a blind person leads a blind person,
both will fall in a hole.

(42)
Yeshua said,
Be passersby.
[Meyer’s note: Or, “Be wanderers,” or, much less likely, “Come into being as you pass away” (Coptic shope etetenerparage). A parallel to this saying appears in an inscription from a mosque at Fatehpur Sikri, India: “Jesus said, ‘This world is a bridge. Pass over it, but do not build your dwelling there.’”]

(51)
His students said to him,
When will the dead rest?
When will the new world come?
He said to them,
What you look for has come
but you do not know it.

(52)
His students said to him,
Twenty-four prophets have spoken in Israel
and they all spoke of you.

He said to them,
You have disregarded the living one among you
and have spoken of the dead.

(54)
Yeshua said,
Blessings on you the poor,
for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

(70)
Yeshua said,
If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you.
If you have nothing within you,
what you do not have within you will kill you.

(113)
His students said to him,
When will the kingdom come?

Yeshua said,
It will not come because you are watching for it.
No one will announce, “Look, here it is,”
or “Look, there it is.”
The father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth
and people do not see it.
 

Books for Passover and Easter

Passover

If you are celebrating Passover or just interested in it, you are familiar with the Haggadah—the book used as a roadmap for the seder meal and rituals that take place on the first couple of evenings of Passover.

There are widely adopted traditions for the seder that include the retelling of the Exodus story and the eating of symbolic foods. But the exact content and form of the seder have long been flexible, and this variety is reflected in different Haggadot. There are hundreds of versions.

For the Passover observant and the P-curious, I recommend a deeper dive than the typical Haggadah—a set of books from Jewish Lights entitled My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries – Volume 1 and Volume 2.

From the editors:

In two volumes, this empowering resource for the spiritual revival of our times enables us to find deeper meaning in one of Judaism’s most beloved traditions, the Passover Seder. Rich Haggadah commentary adds layer upon layer of new insight to the age-old celebration of the journey from slavery to freedom—and makes its power accessible to all.

This diverse and exciting Passover resource features the traditional Haggadah Hebrew text with a new translation designed to let you know exactly what the Haggadah says. Introductory essays help you understand the historical roots of Passover, the development of the Haggadah, and how to make sense out of texts and customs that evolved from ancient times.

Framed with beautifully designed Talmud-style pages, My People’s Passover Haggadah features commentaries by scholars from all denominations of Judaism. You are treated to insights by experts in such fields as the Haggadah’s history; its biblical roots; its confrontation with modernity; and its relationship to rabbinic midrash and Jewish law, feminism, Chasidism, theology, and kabbalah.

No other resource provides such a wide-ranging exploration of the Haggadah, a reservoir of inspiration and information for creating meaningful Seders every year.

These are a bit bulky for the seder table itself. But they are the sort of books you would read if you wanted to understand why people are sitting at the seder table in the first place and why the traditions are so broad and sometimes so misunderstood. If Passover is just going through the motions, any seder and any Haggadah will do. If Passover is one piece of a much bigger picture to be investigated, these enlightening commentaries are what you need.

Easter

Close to each other. Very close. Passover begins tonight on Friday March 30. Easter is this Sunday April 1.

The calendar isn’t all that’s close. The Jewish story and the Christian story, in general and in the context of these particular holidays, are essentially and inextricably linked. The nature of those stories and those connections is the source of faith, enlightenment, misunderstanding, mistrust, even hatred and violence. Among Jews and Christians.

Any big moment on the Jewish and Christian calendars (and these holidays qualify) is an opportunity not just for ritual celebration but for study. How well do we—Jews, Christians, others—understand the texts and traditions outside the comfortable conventions of our belief and practice? Not just understanding that will confirm our faiths, allowing us to nod our heads and pat ourselves on our collective backs, but new and even startling understanding that might shake us and even make us uncomfortable. Everything we know about Judaism or Christianity, about the Bible, about history, may not be wrong, but maybe we could benefit from another open and learned perspective.

The second edition of the The Jewish Annotated New Testament was published last year; any and every Jew or Christian should read at least a little of it. So should everyone else who wants to know something about the foundations of this consequential moment in scripture, history and religion. Believers and nonbelievers may think they know what they’re dealing with. Many don’t.

The editors explain:

It is almost two millennia since the earliest texts incorporated into the New Testament were composed. For the most part, these centuries have seen a painful relationship between Jews and Christians. Although Jewish perceptions of Christians and Christian perceptions of Jews have improved markedly in recent decades, Jews and Christians still misunderstand many of each other’s texts and traditions. The landmark publication of this book is a witness to that improvement; ideally, it will serve to increase our knowledge of both our common histories and the reasons why we came to separate…

The Jewish Annotated New Testament represents the first time a gathering of Jewish scholars wrote a complete commentary on the New Testament. It reached a wide Jewish and Christian audience, and in doing so it has begun to increase both Jewish literacy of the New Testament and Christian awareness of the New Testament’s Jewish context. It has become widely used in colleges, universities and seminaries, as well as in Jewish, Christian, and joint Jewish-Christian study groups. Many Christian clergy and religious educators from different Christian denominations and church settings have told us that they have integrated the insights of this book into their preaching and devotion. Because of this volume, we have been told numerous times, sermons have been corrected, anti-Jewish teaching and preaching have been avoided, and Christians in churches and classrooms and Bible studies have learned more about Jesus and his followers. Jewish readers have told us how the volume has encouraged them to read the New Testament for the first time, to begin to consider the complex relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and how better to understand both their Christian neighbors and their own Jewish history….

For Christian readers The Jewish Annotated New Testament offers a window into the first-century world of Judaism from which the New Testament springs. There are explanations of Jewish concepts such as food laws and rabbinic argumentation. It also provides a much-needed corrective to many centuries of Christian misunderstandings of the Jewish religion.

For Jewish readers, this volume provides the chance to encounter the New Testament–a text of vast importance in Western European and American culture–with no religious agenda and with guidance from Jewish experts in theology, history, and Jewish and Christian thought. It also explains Christian practices, such as the Eucharist.

The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Second Edition is an essential volume that places the New Testament writings in a context that will enlighten readers of any faith or none.