Thursday, December 28, 2006

Joseph and Jesus' relationship

USA weekend magazine had an article last weekend entitled "Why Joseph Matters Today." Its interest is clear:-

as Americans worry about the weakening role of fatherhood in today's culture, Joseph is attracting renewed interest. But how did Joseph evolve into a modern-day hero, a model for men and families?

The article explores first patristic and then medieval interpretations of Joseph from Augustine who describes Joseph as Jesus' spiritual father to 12th Century descriptions of Joseph as a father through love and service.

The article concludes:-

"Many men have experienced an absent or emotionally distant father," says Steve Wood, founder of the St. Joseph Covenant Keepers, a men's group based in South Carolina. "St. Joseph is that tangible role model that fathers can have for parenting and protecting their own children, for faithfulness in marriage and for a being a pure man, morally and sexually."

Ultimately, Joseph's story is one of a lengthy transformation from the shadows of Christianity to its forefront, from an uncertain status to a majestic position as the protector and nurturer of Jesus, Mary and Christian believers.


What the article fails to note however (possibly because the author is a newly minted dissertation writer and not a New Testament scholar) is that the gospel writers never call Joseph Jesus' father. Matthew, for example, consistently describes Joseph, Jesus and Mary in narrative as "Joseph, the child and his mother." No attempt to rehabilitate Joseph can fail to come to terms with this fact.

What the article in fact attempts to do (in line with patristic and medieval interpretation at least as far as the citations go) is to rehabilitate Joseph by giving Joseph (and Jesus) a respectable if not biological family of origin. But this isn't based on an interpretation of the text of the New Testament or Christian tradition. What gospel writers like Matthew are doing in fact is articulating a respectful distance between Joseph and the child with his mother in the context of a gospel in which Jesus teaches the disciples to pray: Our Father, the one in the heavens. In fact, Pseudo-Matthew and other late biblical paraphrases articulate Matthew's carefully worded distinction. For a detailed discussion, see chapter two of Jesus' Family Values.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Nativity down in the dirt: musical exegesis part two

Rhidlan Brook has a thought for the day on December 16th in which he makes the point that a nativity without messiness and vulnerability has missed the point. And so often sentimentality substitutes for religious content.

This Christmas we bought a version of the Messiah performed by the Dunedin Consort directed by John Butt. (I know that the Messiah was not originally performed at Christmas but who can think of Christmas these days without it?)

According to the notes from Linn Records, distinctive to the 1742 June performances was Handel's inclusion of one lyrical alto aria in each of the three parts to Mrs Susannah Cibber, sister of Thomas Arne. Cibber was best known as an outstanding actor, but had recently undergone the scandal of an extra-marital affair, the details of which had been described in court in astonishingly unambiguous detail. Her appearance in Dublin marked the beginning of her return to public life at a safe distance from London; although by no means expert as a singer, her performances brought a quality of expression that was clearly outstanding. The aria ‘He shall feed his flock’ in Part 1, originally cast for soprano in Bb major, was therefore transposed down to F major to suit Mrs Cibber. The aria from Part 2 (‘He was despised and rejected’ – and, as it happened, a particularly prescient text for the singer concerned) was already in the correct range and, in Part 3, Handel transposed the aria ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’ from G minor (soprano) to C minor, thus giving Mrs Cibber the final aria, conventionally reserved for the leading soloist.

Handel's fascinating deployment of these arias to rehabilitate Mrs Cibber is a concrete use of text and music. I will never hear these arias without thinking of her.

Rohr: Humbled By Mystery

Richard Rohr had a recent interview with NPR. In it, he speaks of his experience of ageing as being comfortable with ambiguity. The interview concludes:-

People who have really met the Holy are always humble. It's the people who don't know who usually pretend that they do. People who've had any genuine spiritual experience always know they don't know. They are utterly humbled before mystery. They are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind. It is a litmus test for authentic God experience, and is -- quite sadly -- absent from much of our religious conversation today. My belief and comfort is in the depths of Mystery, which should be the very task of religion.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Musical Exegeses of the Birth Narratives

In this season of Advent 3, I find myself reflecting on musical settings of biblical passages within the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew.

Here is Bach's interpretation of the 1723 Magnificat in D Major (you'll need RealPlayer to listen):-

1. “Magnificat anima mea” (Luke 1:46)

2. “Et exultavit” (Luke 1:47)

3. “Fecit potentiam” (Luke 1:51)

4. “Deposuit potentes” (Luke 1:52)

Compare these excerpts with Arvo Part's Magnificat.

I'm no music critic but one can hear Bach's attention to individual words. Listen to the descending notes of the "Deposuit" to articulate the "casting down" of the mighty from their thrones. Commenting on the "Esurientes" of Bach’s Magnificat, for example—the passage proclaiming that the poor have been filled with good things and the rich sent away empty, Edward Tatnall Canby says the music "is both wistful and sly, as if in satisfaction at the justice of it all; note the curiously missing final note to the flutes’ ornamental melody, perhaps ‘taken away’ as from the rich!"

Part concentrates instead on syllables of words. Listen to the word "misericordia" in which each of the syllables is articulated but not all are given different notes. Individual words may not differ from other words. Paul Hillier says that Part's Magnificat is "one of the happiest meetings of tintinnabuli technique and words of a non-penitential character," conveying "the uplifted, tender joy of the Virgin Mother"; a "little masterpiece" that shows tintinnabulation "at its most supple and refined."

Hillier quotes Part:

Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers—in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises—and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Being a Sausage

This weekend we've been visiting Reverend Dr Mom and the Kid. The weather is unseasonably mild and we've enjoyed walks with the dogs in the neighborhood. We've had good conversations about books we're reading: in particular Working On Your Relationship Doesn't Work which I've just started. Discussing the first chapter so as to apply the perception of things as they are to one's job and relationships is a novel way of reading the kind of book I don't normally read.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

How the Religious Right Handles Mary Cheney's pregnancy

Anyone who missed it should find Mike Luckovitch's cartoon for the Atlanta Constitution appearing in this week's Time Magazine.

The preacher in a pulpit announces, "And lo, miraculously, the Virgin Mary was with child!" A woman in the pews remarks to her husband next to her, "I was wondering how the religious right would handle Mary Cheney's pregnancy."

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Cherry Tree Carol & Pseudo Matthew

What is Pseudo-Matthew and what does it have to do with the Cherry Tree Carol?

One such copy of a New Testament History Bible dated August 23, 1440 from South Germany exists today in the New York Public Library (NYPL SP 102). Alongside material from the New Testament are expansions of Matthean material from Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew relating the journey of Joseph, “the child and his mother” in Egypt. This particular Bible can be read in vernacular German.

A section from Pseudo-Matthew records that on the third day of their journey, overcome with heat, Mary indicates to Joseph that she wishes to rest in the shade of a date palm. Joseph accedes and helps her get off the donkey. Noticing the tree full of fruit, Mary declares: “I wish someone could get me some of the fruits of the palm-tree.” Joseph responds: “I wonder that you say this; for you see how high this palm-tree is, and (I wonder) that you even think about eating of the fruits of the palm. I think rather of the lack of water, which already fails us in the skins, and we have nothing with which we canrefresh ourselves and the animals.” Jesus, however, commands the tree to bend down its branches and refresh his mother with its fruit. The tree obliges and, at a further command from Jesus, opens a vein of water by its roots in the form of a fountain that refreshes the thirst of human and animal alike. On the journey through Egypt, according to Pseudo-Matthew, it is the child Jesus rather than an unsympathetic Joseph who responds to his mother Mary’s needs. This detail serves to interpret the distance between the child and his mother and Joseph.

This story from Pseudo-Matthew has much in common with the well-known Cherry Tree Carol, which is frequently described as having derived from Pseudo-Matthew.
Here's one version:-

A my swete husbond, wold ye telle to me
What tre is yon standynge upon yon hylle?

Joseph Forsothe, Mary, it is clepyd a chery tre,
In time of yer ye myght fede you y on yo fylle.

Maria Turne ageyn husbond and beholde yon tre,
How yt blomyght now so swetely.

Joseph Cum on, Mary, yt we worn at yon cyte,
Or ellys we may be blamyd I tell yow lythly.

Maria Now my spouse, I pray you to be hold
How ye cheryes growyn upon yon tre,
For to have y of ryght fayn I wold,
& it plesyd yow to labor so mech for me.

Joseph Yor desyr to fulfylle I shall assay sekyrly,
Ow to plucke you of these cheries it is a werk wylde,
For ye tre is so hyg it wold not be lyghtly,
Y for lete hy pluk yon cheryes be gatt you wt childe.

Maria Now good Lord I pray the, graunt me yis boun,
To have of yese cheries, and it be yor wylie,
Now I thank it God, yis tre bowyth to me down,
I may now gadery anowe & eten my fylie.

Joseph Ow, I know weyl I have offended my Gid i trinyte,
Spekeyng to my spowse these unkynde wurdys,
For now I believe wel it may now other be
But yt my spouse beryght ye kyngs son of blys, etc.

Here's a more modern one.

The differences are significant, however. The date has become a cherry, which Joseph will not pluck for Mary. Joseph, in fact, responds in the Carol in a way that impugns the purity of Mary, ("let the one who got you with child, pluck you the cherry") casting himself in an ungenerous light, where in Pseudo-Matthew Joseph is concerned with more serious needs, and Mary's craving may seem frivolous. The Carol is set before the birth of Jesus, and the cherry is provided by God's intervention with the tree, justifying Mary to Joseph. The carol and Pseudo-Matthew may in fact date from a similar time, in which case it is hard to determine which version of the story is original, and which the response. Is Pseudo-Matthew painting Joseph in a more favorable light in correction of the carol, or is the Cherry Tree Carol elevating Mary in response to Pseudo-Matthew? Both texts presume tension between husband and wife. In this regard, they reflect Matthew's account of Jesus' origins.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Amy-Jill Levine's book on The Misunderstood Jew:The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus

Since I'm in Nashville this weekend (enroute to Kentucky to speak at Grace Church, Paducah tomorrow), it seems appropriate to mention Amy-Jill Levine's new book (released Nov 28th) on Jesus as noted in the Tennessean in an article by Michael E. Williams.

Levine takes on some major misconceptions about Jesus and Judaism held by Christians of all kinds, he notes. From her experience she knows that these impressions can be springboards to deeper conversation and insight.

"Jesus of Nazareth," she writes, "dressed like a Jew, prayed like a Jew, (and most likely in Aramaic) instructed other Jews on how best to live according to the commandments given by God to Moses, taught like a Jew, argued like a Jew with other Jews, and died like thousands of other Jews on a Roman cross."

"The Misunderstood Jew" serves as Levine's attempt to foster conversation between Christians and Jews around the person of Jesus. Grounded in solid scholarship, yet accessible to the general reader, this book is an invaluable resource for pastors, teachers and adult church school classes.

Levine guides readers of the New Testament to see the diversity and complexity of the Jewish community at the time of Jesus. She outlines some of the groups, beliefs and divisions present in the Judaism of Jesus' day, and she helps us understand why some Jews saw Jesus as the Messiah, while others did not.

I'm off to find a copy in a Nashville bookstore :)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Tomb of Paul found at St Paul Outside the Walls?

Archaeologists have unearthed a sarcophagus believed to contain the remains of the Apostle Paul that had been buried beneath Rome's second largest basilica.

The sarcophagus, which dates back to at least A.D. 390, has been the subject of an extended excavation that began in 2002 and was completed last month, the project's head said this week.

Two ancient churches that once stood at the site of the current basilica were successively built over the spot where tradition said the saint had been buried. The second church, built by the Roman emperor Theodosius in the fourth century, left the tomb visible, first above ground and later in a crypt.

When a fire destroyed the church in 1823, the current basilica was built and the ancient crypt was filled with earth and covered by a new altar.

"We were always certain that the tomb had to be there beneath the papal altar," Filippi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Filippi said that the decision to make the sarcophagus visible again was made after many pilgrims who came to Rome during the Catholic Church's 2000 Jubilee year expressed disappointment at finding that the saint's tomb could not be visited or touched.

The findings of the project will be officially presented during a news conference at the Vatican on Monday.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Bible Translations

Donald Kraus' new book, Choosing a Bible: For Worship, Teaching, Study, Preaching, and Prayer (2006) takes an eirenic approach pointing out the advantages and disadvantages of available translations. In the end the choice, he says, is between visiting a museum and building a home (p.85). A museum is broadening and educational while a home is familiar and comfortable. While it can contain exotic objects (and a museum can be familiar) each has its own purpose and we need both in our lives.

Practically speaking, Kraus is arguing for reading Alter or Fox's translations alongside the NRSV. Of course. But missing from the book is a discussion of what drives many publications of modern translations whether by committees or individuals, whether more formal or dynamic in approach, namely, profit.

Bible sales today represent a large market—estimated, PW tells us, between $425 million (by Harper San Francisco) and $609 million (by Zondervan), with relatively stable sales. Today's Bibles come in all sorts of shapes and sizes: portable (Tyndale just released Veritas, a handbag with a special pocket on the outside for a coordinating compact New Living Translation Bible), fashionable (Zondervan's Italian Duotones with two-color leather-look covers with visible stitching; four colour printing on bible paper without bleeding in the Holman Illustrated Study Bible), and downloadable (Broadman and Holman's "Build a Bible" lets the buyer assemble a selection of three translations, several cover styles and colours from distressed leather to hot pink). In November, Nelson's "Redefine Biblezine" for babyboomers provides a download of the complete text of the New Testament with feature articles on health, travel, Bible promises and essentials, dealing with an empty nest, life fulfillment, finances, second careers, and many other topics.

There is no end to the shape and style in which you can encounter the Bible. And get ready for more: todays inbox brings a note that HarperSanFrancisco, a division of Harper Collins, has secured a ten-year exclusive license to manage the New Revised Standard Version text from the National Council of Churches. They feel this translation has been under supported in terms of editions and features, as well as marketing and promotion. "As we get ready to release new editions of NRSV text Bibles and develop other special editions of the Bible, we would like to “relaunch” the NRSV to the public," they add. For what we are about to receive...

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Peace in Advent in Rutgers at least

Today's NY Times has a Religion Journal article by Marek Fuchs about Muslim and Jewish women, with an atheist, a Buddhist and an agnostic included for good measure in a college dormitory in Rutgers University.

Has anyone noticed that the people here trying to converse about explosive topics, clenching teeth and agreeing not to leave the room and even just agreeing to disagree whilst living together in the Middle East CoExistence House, are women?

David Bentley Hart's new translation of The New Testament

David Bentley Hart's new translation of the New Testament is a breath of fresh air: responsible, creative, and inspiring. Yale Unive...