I am (finally!) beginning to catch up to where I had planned to be by this time in the Great Books of the Western World 10 Year Reading Plan. My (slightly modified version of the original) plan is to double up on the reading for the next few months. If (if!) I am able to do this, I will be able to catch up by the Spring, so stay tuned as we continue this journey. In the mean time, here are a few brief thoughts on the most recent reading, the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles:
As I noted in my comments on last month’s readings (from Plutarch), I have continued to see a theme of focus on leadership and government in the works we have read thus far this year. With this in mind, it is possible to compare the leadership of Christ over the apostles and of the apostles over the early Christian communities with the leadership of those figures whom Plutarch discusses in last month’s readings.
Like Numa and Lycurgus, we can certainly view Christ as a lawgiver. While a comparison of Christ-as-lawgiver/community-founder with Numa and/or Lycurgus as the same is the stuff dissertations are made of and I don’t plan to write a dissertation on this subject, there are some notable points of comparison and contrast that can be gotten at without the expenditure of much effort. Numa, for example, is referred to as a very pious individual by Plutarch; ostensibly, Numa derived the laws he delivered to the people through a divine medium. Similarly, of course, Christ, the new law-giver, comes with a new law that is of divine origin; notably, he also reorients the old law toward himself in his claim to be the divine figure who brought the earlier law.
It is also worth mentioning that one major contention that the Romans had with Christ and, later, with his followers was Christ’s claim of kingship, which seemed to be (and is, in the letters of St. Paul) a challenge to the authority of Caesar. Numa, as a founding figure of the Romans, then, stands in a sort of conflict with Christ in his claim of dominion.
The two historical (as opposed to mythological) figures discussed by Plutarch in last month’s readings, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, also present quite insightful contrasts with the leadership of Christ and his apostles. One might compare, for instance, the deaths of Caesar and Christ. Both are killed by their own people for their claim to be king, both are betrayed by a friend, the last words of both before their respective deaths are cries of abandonment, but the nature of their claims are ultimately quite different: Caesar is murdered for grabbing ever greater amounts of power; Christ offers himself as a sacrifice on behalf of his people. It might be worth discussing this more when we read Dante in the future, given Dante’s placement of the murderers of Caesar (Cassius and Brutus) alongside the betrayer of Christ (Judas) in the mouths of Lucifer in the center of Hell.
There is much more that could be added here, but I will keep my remarks brief over the next several months as I seek to catch up in the reading list. I would be delighted to read and discuss any thoughts you might have about these readings. Leave a comment here to share your thoughts with us.
1 And the whole multitude of them arose, and led him unto Pilate.
2 And they began to accuse him, saying, We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King.
3 And Pilate asked him, saying, Art thou the King of the Jews? And he answered him and said, Thou sayest it.
4 Then said Pilate to the chief priests and to the people, I find no fault in this man.
5 And they were the more fierce, saying, He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place.
6 When Pilate heard of Galilee, he asked whether the man were a Galilaean.
7 And as soon as he knew that he belonged unto Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who himself also was at Jerusalem at that time.
8 And when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad: for he was desirous to see him of a long season, because he had heard many things of him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him.
9 Then he questioned with him in many words; but he answered him nothing.
10 And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused him.
11 And Herod with his men of war set him at nought, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent him again to Pilate.
12 And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves.
13 And Pilate, when he had called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people,
14 Said unto them, Ye have brought this man unto me, as one that perverteth the people: and, behold, I, having examined him before you, have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him:
15 No, nor yet Herod: for I sent you to him; and, lo, nothing worthy of death is done unto him.
16 I will therefore chastise him, and release him.
17 (For of necessity he must release one unto them at the feast.)
18 And they cried out all at once, saying, Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas:
19 (Who for a certain sedition made in the city, and for murder, was cast into prison.)
20 Pilate therefore, willing to release Jesus, spake again to them.
21 But they cried, saying, Crucify him, crucify him.
22 And he said unto them the third time, Why, what evil hath he done? I have found no cause of death in him: I will therefore chastise him, and let him go.
23 And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that he might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed.
24 And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required.
25 And he released unto them him that for sedition and murder was cast into prison, whom they had desired; but he delivered Jesus to their will.
26 And as they led him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus.
27 And there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him.
28 But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children.
29 For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.
30 Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us.
31 For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?
32 And there were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death.
33 And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left.
34 Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.
35 And the people stood beholding. And the rulers also with them derided him, saying, He saved others; let him save himself, if he be Christ, the chosen of God.
36 And the soldiers also mocked him, coming to him, and offering him vinegar,
37 And saying, If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself.
38 And a superscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, This Is The King Of The Jews.
39 And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.
40 But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?
41 And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.
42 And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.
43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.
44 And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour.
45 And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst.
46 And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.
47 Now when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man.
48 And all the people that came together to that sight, beholding the things which were done, smote their breasts, and returned.
49 And all his acquaintance, and the women that followed him from Galilee, stood afar off, beholding these things.
43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
46 For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same?
47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so?
48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
Through all that they experienced, the Jews continued to hope for a messiah. They believed that the messiah would be sent by God to set things right. He would finally put an end to all of the suffering of the Jewish people and would bring about a time of justice for all people. The Jews believed he would bring salvation, rescue from sin and its consequences. In about 30 AD, a man named Jesus, from a small town in Judea, began to preach to the people that he was that messiah.
The Gospels are the four books of the New Testament in the Bible that tell the story of the life of Jesus. The Gospels claim that Jesus’s mother, Mary, was a virgin who was visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she had been chosen to be the mother of the messiah. She gave birth nine months later in a cave in the village of Bethlehem. There, she and her new child were visited by shepherds who had been told of the birth of the messiah by angels. They were also visited by men called magi, who were priests from Persia. The magi had followed a star in the sky to the spot where Jesus was born.
When they arrived in Judea, the magi went to the king, a man named Herod, who ruled on behalf of the Romans. They asked him where they would find the messiah who had been born. Herod was a jealous and angry man. He lied to the magi and told them he too wanted to worship the new messiah. If they found out where the child had been born, he said, they should come and tell him. The magi eventually did find out where Jesus was born and visited Jesus and his mother. They gave them gifts and worshiped the child. They had a bad feeling about Herod, though, so they returned home without telling him where the child was. Because he did not know which child it was, Herod ordered his soldiers to kill every baby boy born recently in his kingdom. Mary and Jesus, along with Mary’s husband Joseph, fled into Egypt until the death of Herod a few years later. The birth of Jesus is celebrated every year on December 25 by Christians around the world.
The Gospels do not say much about what life was like for Jesus and his family when they returned to Judea. One interesting story about his childhood records an event that happened when Jesus was 12 years old. He visited the temple in Jerusalem along with his family to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover. On the way home to Nazareth from Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary realized that Jesus was missing. They went back to Jerusalem and searched all over for him. They finally found him in the temple, discussing the Bible with Jewish religious leaders there, asking and answering questions as if he were a wise man, even though he was a young boy!
Most of the story told in the Gospels tells of the events in Jesus’s life after he turned 30 years old. It was then that Jesus began to travel all around Judea, preaching the message that he was the messiah. He said that now was the time to repent of past sins and to begin to live a more just and merciful life. He said that God wanted people to love him and to love each other.
The Gospels also record that everywhere he went he healed the diseases of sick people. According to the Gospels, Jesus performed many miracles, including giving sight to blind men, making deaf people able to hear, allowing paralyzed people to walk again, and even raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.
All of this activity attracted the attention of people who did not like what Jesus was saying and doing. The Jewish priests thought that Jesus’s claim to be the Son of God was blasphemy. They said that he was making it sound like he was equal to God. The Roman authorities also had a problem with Jesus’s teachings. They knew that the Jews believed the messiah would free the Jewish people and let them have their own kingdom again. To the Romans, Jesus’s claims that he was the messiah sounded like treason. They believed he would try to stir up the Jews to rebel against Roman rule.
Jesus had many followers, but he chose 12 men, called apostles, to follow him wherever he went and help him spread his message. On the night when the Jews celebrated Passover, Jesus gathered with his 12 apostles in a home just outside of Jerusalem. There, they celebrated the Passover meal together. During the meal, Jesus picked up the loaf of bread used to celebrate the Passover, said a prayer to bless it, broke it into pieces, and declared to his apostles, “This is my body, which is broken for you.” He then gave the pieces to his apostles to eat. After the meal, Jesus lifted up the cup of wine at the table and told his apostles, “This is my blood, which will be shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.” He then gave the cup to all of his apostles to drink. Most Christians around the world remember this special meal every Sunday morning in their worship when they celebrate the Eucharist by eating and drinking blessed bread and wine.
After the meal, one of his apostles, a man named Judas, left the house where they had eaten. For 30 pieces of silver, he betrayed Jesus by telling them where he was. They went to the hillside where he and his apostles had gone after the meal and arrested Jesus. They took him first to the Jewish priests, who declared that he was guilty of the crime of blasphemy for claiming that he was equal to God. Jesus was then taken to the Roman authorities who found him guilty of the crime of treason for claiming that he was the messiah and the king of the Jews.
In afternoon the following day, a Friday, Jesus was crucified. Crucifixion is a Roman punishment which was used to put the very worst criminals to death. In crucifixion, a criminal’s hands and feet were nailed to pieces of wood placed in the shape of a lower-case t. We call this shape a cross. All of Jesus’s apostles except for one young boy, John, fled because they were afraid they too would be crucified along with him. While Jesus was crucified, John, Jesus’s mother, and a few women who were Jesus’s followers stood by the cross. After three hours on the cross, the Gospels say Jesus looked up into the sky and loudly shouted, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Jesus then died.
His body was taken down from the cross and placed in a cave just outside of the city. Because Saturday was the Sabbath day on which Jews could not do any work, his body could not be prepared for burial until sunrise on Sunday morning. The Gospels say that four of the women who were followers of Jesus went to the tomb on Sunday morning, but found it empty. The bandages that Jesus’s body had been wrapped in were in the tomb but his body was gone. As they exited the tomb in confusion, Jesus himself appeared to the women and told them that he had resurrected, which means he had risen from the dead. Christians celebrate this event every year on the holiday of Easter.
According to the Gospels, Jesus spent the next 40 days visiting his followers and teaching them the meaning of his death and resurrection. At the end of the 40 days, his followers watched as Jesus ascended into heaven. A new religion, called Christianity, was born. This religion would spread from just a few followers in Judea to become the religion of the whole Roman Empire. Today, Christianity is still the largest religion in the world.
1. What event do Christians celebrate on Christmas?
2. What were the two crimes Jesus was convicted of?
3. How was he punished for these crimes?
4. What event do Christians celebrate on Easter?
Salvation – rescue from sin and its consequences
The religious form of legalistic ethics is to be found in pharisaism. It is a mistake to imagine, as many Christians do, that Pharisees were morally and religiously on a low level and to use the word almost as a term of abuse. On the contrary, pharisaism was the highest point reached by the Jews in their moral and religious life. And, indeed, starting from the hard-set ground of the Old Testament religion of the law it was impossible to rise higher. But it was this pure and lofty form of Judaism that Christ denounced. The thing that impresses one most in reading the Gospel is the rebellion against pharisaism, the denunciation of its falsity as compared with the New Testament truth. That means the denunciation of legalistic morality, of the idea of justification by the law, and of complacent self-righteousness. The Gospel puts sinners and publicans above the Pharisees, the unclean above the clean, those who have not fulfilled the law above those who have fulfilled it, the last above the first, the perishing above the saved, “the wicked” above “the good”. This is the paradox of Christian morality which the Christians have found it hard to understand and accept. Christians imagine that the Gospel denunciations refer to Pharisees who lived in the distant past, and themselves join in rhetorically denouncing them as villains. But in truth those denunciations refer to ourselves, to us who are living to-day, to the self-righteous, to the morally “first” and “saved” of all times. The Gospel morality as such will be discussed later. But what does this paradox mean? Why shall the first in the moral sense be last and vice versa? Why is it better to be a sinner conscious of his sin than to be a Pharisee conscious of his righteousness? The usual explanation is that the sinner is humble while the Pharisee is proud, like the Stoic, and Christianity is first and foremost a religion of humility. It seems to me that this explanation does not go to the root of the disquieting problem. The Pharisees stood on the confines of two worlds, at the dividing line between the ethics of law and the ethics of grace and redemption. The impotence of the ethics of law to save from sin an evil had to be made manifest in them. The difficulty of the problem lies in the fact that the precepts of legalistic ethics are fully practicable. One can fulfill the law down to the smallest detail and become pure according to the law. This was precisely what the Pharisees did. And then it appeared that the perfect fulfillment of the law and perfect purity do not save, do not lead to the Kingdom of God. The law sprang up as a result of sin, but it is powerless to free man from the world in which he found himself after plucking the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It is powerless to conquer sin and cannot save. Pharisaism, i.e. the ethics of law, is mercilessly condemned in the Gospel because its adherents do not need the Savior and salvation as sinners and publicans need it, because if the final religious and moral truth were on the side of the Pharisees redemption would be unnecessary. Pharisaism means rejection of the Redeemer and redemption and the belief that salvation is to be found by fulfilling the moral law. But in truth salvation means rising above the distinction between good and evil which is the result of the Fall, i.e. rising above the law engendered by that distinction. It means entering the Kingdom of Heaven, which is certainly not the Kingdom of the law or of the good as it exists on this side of the distinction.
Nikolai Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, pp. 98-9