Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Language of Jesus

Note: by clicking on the title, the reader will find a link to a critical review of the work of George M. Lamsa.

To understand Jesus means to understand the language that he spoke. And to understand the language he spoke we need to be practictioners of his teachings in our own lives, for his words don't come to life - remain empty and meaningless - unless we accept a relationship with him in our own life and try to "follow him," in our own daily life. And like the apostles we will do so with a lot of falling down and getting back up, and learning that nevertheless the only thing we can ever count on in this life is Jesus' forgiveness.

For it is only by following his teaching in our own lives that we will come to gradually understand duality as metaphor, and we will come to appreciate that now as then Jesus teaches only in parables which do not ever reveal themselves to us except in our own personal relationship to our Internal Teacher, so that in looking with him we gradually start seeing content, not form, and finally we should have ears to hear and eyes to see.

The language of Jesus is the language of experience. Historically, Jesus the man spoke Aramaic. But the street language and commercial language of the time was Koinè, a street Greek, because the region was Hellenized. And it is very clear that the oldest and most reliable texts of the NT materials are in Greek and a few cases old Syriac. And the best, most scholarly editions of the NT are those of UBS or Nestlé-Aland (Württembergische Bibelanstalt), which are widely available, and are based on careful text-critical study of the 5000 known manuscripts of the NT materials.

Much has been made about Aramaicisms in the NT Greek. The best known work in that area was by Gustav Dalman in Germany ("Jesus-Jeshua," 1922, "Grammatik des Jüdisch-Palästinischen Aramäisch," 1905-1927, "Orte und Wege Jesu," 1924, "Die Worte Jesu," 1930) in the early 20th century, followed by Matthew Black's "An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts," of 1946. For those of us who are linguistically inclined it may or may not be worthwhile to study such materials. They address the realities of distortions in the Greek accounts resulting from the fact that the actors (Jesus, c.s.) spoke Aramaic. There may be an occasional gem to be found. I have personally studied much of this material in depth many years ago, since I learned both Greek and Hebrew in school and subsequently at least made an attempt to learn enough Aramaic to be able to follow the work of Dalman - relatively easy to do if one also has a strong command of classical Greek.
After a few years of this study I gave up in disgust, realizing that Jesus was not to be found in an archaeological dig under old rubble, but only in my own relationship with him in my life. My finding of A Course in Miracles later in life did more to progress any sense of a relationship with Jesus than any amount of study of Aramaicisms in NT Greek.

The George M. Lamsa material, most notably his translation of the Bible from the Peshitta, make an emotional appeal to the fact that Aramaic was the language of Jesus, and therefore they are presented as more accurate. However, the Peshitta was in fact a 4th century revision of earlier old Syriac manuscripts, so the route went from Greek to old Syriac to Aramaic, and then 1500 years later into English, courtesy of George Lamsa. Greek manuscripts reach back to as early as 100-150 AD. In short, the claims on which Lamsa's bases the authority of his work are emotional and not historically supportable. Now we may still be interested in his work, or the Peshitta materials in general, as much as in any variations of the text. And again, for those who are so inclined there may be a few gems to be found, but for most of it it appears to be a cumbersome detour, and hardly a shortcut.

If you want to go back to the original language as much as possible, there are lovely editions such as "The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament," 1960, Tyndale House Publishers, Chicago, and based on the now combined UBS/Nestlé-Aland Greek texts, with interlinear English, and the NRSV in the margins. In my personal work I tend to go back to the KJV because of its enormous influence in English (including notably in ACIM), or to other modern translations when the details matter, or even directly to the Greek, if I think it is worthwhile. I doubt that it would be worthwhile to learn Greek for that purpose however.

In terms of understanding Jesus, practicing the Course is more helpful than studying all of this material. However, if one wants to develop a good critical view, the recommendation would be a KJV for historical reasons, a NRSV or NIV for a modern text (with Apocrypha), and Marvin Meyer's Gospel of Thomas, as well as perhaps Hyam Maccoby's "The Mythmaker, Paul and the Invention of Christianity," and then the Course and Disappearance of the Universe to help put it all in perspective.

I believe that what we would end up with is a view in which we must realize that the true tradition of the heart more likely ran via Mary Magdalene than via all the noise makers who left extensive track records. Her quiet near-absence from the historical record speaks volumes. In terms of the extant texts, the sayings gospels and Thomas in particular may have a higher content of actual quotes from Jesus than any of the canonical materials. So there is distortion in terms of the books themselves for no author was perfect, and transcription errors were common, as well as in terms of which materials were chosen for the canonical NT, when it was formulated ca 400 AD under Athanasius (Yes, it was that late!!!). The main distortions in later translations as well as perhaps in some of the original texts, had more than likely to do with the slant in the belief systems of those who produced those texts, and in particular the emerging Pauline theology, which was to become Christianity "proper," but quite evidently had never been taught by Jesus.

Thus the most faithful rendering into English from the best Greek texts will still suffer from the theological slant of the translator, and again from a Course perspective we may end up with a very different word choice in translations than we would if we came from a Christian/Pauline point of view. Which only serves to reemphasize the point that it is our own experiences in attempting to follow Jesus in our lives, and to practice what he teaches, which are the most valuable guidance in translation and understanding. Without that, any of the extant linguistic research is still fairly useless, since it deals only with form, not content, and can be tainted, typically and particularly so if Pauline theology guides the ultimate construction and word choices.

I decided to write about this matter at some length in this place, because this question comes up frequently in various discussion groups, on-line and off-line. It may help some of us find our best avenue to the most reliable and comfortable renditions. For the rest I can only say that intuition should be the best guide, not external authority. And Lamsa's fraudulent emotional claim to legitimacy because Aramaic was the language of Jesus, while ignoring the historically dubious standing of the Peshitta from a text-critical point of view, is an obfuscation and misleading, however sincere his intentions might have been. The eager uptake of his material by successive generations of readers says more about the underlying suspicions of church authority in readers who are looking for a better source, than it says about the scholarly value of Lamsa's work.

In conclusion I might add that e.g. Henry J. van Dyke, in "The Fourth Wise Man," truly translated Jesus' message into modern-day language, and the story reflects an advanced inner understanding of who and what Jesus is. There are numerous Christ legends which similarly reflect a deep understanding of the message. There have always been people who similarly expressed Jesus' teachings in their lives. We translate Jesus whenever we give form to the thought system of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives and in our interactions with people, by expressing the abstract thought of Love in the specifics of our daily lives, and thus "demonstrating that he lives in us," THAT is truly translating the teachings of Jesus. Translating the NT must be done from that frame of reference, but the sad truth is that most often it has only been done from a perspective of book learning and theology (teachings about Jesus), and not from practicing the teachings of Jesus. External authority can only cloud the picture, be it the specious claims of righteousness of the apostolic succession on which the church builds an aura of authority, or the mythical authority of the Peshitta.

I write these lines in deep gratitude to the teachings of Jan Willem Kaiser, who powerfully stated these points in his translation and commentary to the Gospel according to Mark ("Beleving van het Evangelie,"1950).

Copyright, © 2005 Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Take up Your Cross and Follow Me

In Mk 8:34 and 10:21 as well as in several places in the other canonical gospels, Jesus is quoted as saying the words in the title.

KJV has it as follows:
And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

J.W. Kaiser (JWK) translates this as follows (from the Dutch in "Beleving van het evangelie," 1950):
And, having called the crowd to himself with his disciples, he said to them:
'If anyone wants to follow me, he should deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.'

In his parallel esoteric interpretation of the text JWK writes as follows:
The Master calls the many who do not as yet follow him and his disciples to himself with the all too oft forgotten word: that whoever really wants to follow him, should not go the way of self-glorification, but should face the resistance of the values of the world to the full in his soul as it is directed heavenward, and bear it like a cross.

Today we can more than ever, with our Course perspective, understand what those words meant to convey: "Take responsibility for your choice for the ego (crucifixion), and follow me." And thus this simple line states a material point of Jesus' teaching of the Atonement, which in the Course is given expression in Chapter 27 as follows:

The secret of salvation is but this: that you are doing this unto yourself. 2 No matter what the form of the attack, this still is true. 3 Whoever takes the role of enemy and of attacker, still is this the truth. 4 Whatever seems to be the cause of any pain and suffering you feel, this is still true. 5 For you would not react at all to figures in a dream you knew that you were dreaming. 6 Let them be as hateful and as vicious as they may, they could have no effect on you unless you failed to recognize it is your dream.
Unquote (ACIM:T-27.VIII.10)

In other words the point is salvation is only possible if we take responsibility for our choice for the ego, for unless we do, we could not change our mind about it either. Putting these various comments together, it is very clear how and why the "resistance" that we experience is nothing but the thought system of the ego (the world) within us which is our "cross," and that our path in following Jesus is to clear away these "obstacles to love's presence." (Course introduction) Thus the path is in effect the letting go of the ego's values, which the forgiveness process makes possible in helping us see every situation as a classroom in forgiveness, giving us the opportunity to let go of these obstacles within ourselves, which we see in the world outside only because of our split mind, which cannot see within.

In the section "The Message of the Crucifixion," in Chapter 6, the Course discusses the symbolism of the crucifixion as Jesus intended it:

You have probably reacted for years as if you were being crucified. 2 This is a marked tendency of the separated, who always refuse to consider what they have done to themselves. 3 Projection means anger, anger fosters assault, and assault promotes fear. 4 The real meaning of the crucifixion lies in the intensity of the assault of some of the Sons of God upon another. 5 This, of course, is impossible, and must be fully understood impossible. 6 Otherwise, I cannot serve as a model for learning.
Assault can ultimately be made only on the body. 2 There is little doubt that one body can assault another, and can even destroy it. 3 Yet if destruction itself is impossible, anything that is destructible cannot be real. 4 Its destruction, therefore, does not justify anger. 5 To the extent to which you believe that it does, you are accepting false premises and teaching them to others. 6 The message the crucifixion was intended to teach was that it is not necessary to perceive any form of assault in persecution, because you cannot persecuted. 7 If you respond with anger, you must be equating yourself with the destructible, and are therefore regarding yourself insanely.
I have made it perfectly clear that I am like you and you are like me, but our fundamental equality can be demonstrated only through joint decision. 2 You are free to perceive yourself as persecuted if you choose. 3 When you do choose to react that way, however, you might remember that I was persecuted as the world judges, and did not share this evaluation for myself. 4 And because I did not share it, I did not strengthen it. 5 I therefore offered a different interpretation of attack, and one which I want to share with you. 6 If you will believe it, you will help me teach it.
Unquote (ACIM:T-6.I.3-5)

In other words Jesus is not his body and he is teaching us who he really is, spirit, so we may learn through him who we really are, like him, spirit. So he is asking us to learn with him and become like him, so we don't feel persecuted if we are attacked, on the basis of the fact that the body is not who we are. It becomes even more pointed a few paragraphs down, when he says:

The message of the crucifixion is perfectly clear:
2 Teach only love, for that is what you are.
Unquote (ACIM:T-6.I.13)

In the early Christian era the words about taking up the cross were misconstrued almost immediately in the context of the profound belief in sacrifice and vicarious salvation which fairly promptly became prominent interpretations, not least thanks to Paul. Thus the misinterpretation of "following Jesus," and taking up our cross, became the "imitatio Christi." i.e. to repeat in form what he experienced in the world, namely the crucifixion, and so Christianity confessed itself in its practices to what it truly is, a religion of form over content, which serves the purpose of validating the reality of the world to its followers - the complete opposite of what Jesus taught. In the next paragraph in "The Message of the Crucifixion," he then proceeds to correct this error of Christianity by emphasizing that we are supposed to join him in the content of his experience, rather than repeat the extreme form that his particular experience took:

As I have said before, "As you teach so shall you learn." 2 If you react as if you are persecuted, you are teaching persecution. 3 This is not a lesson a Son of God should want to teach if he is to realize his own salvation. 4 Rather, teach your own perfect immunity, which is the truth in you, and realize that it cannot assailed. 5 Do not try to protect it yourself, or you are believing that it is assailable. 6 You are not asked to be crucified, which was part of my own teaching contribution. 7 You are merely asked to follow my example in the face of much less extreme temptations to misperceive, and not to accept them as false justifications for anger. 8 There can be no justification for the unjustifiable. 9 Do not believe there is, and do not teach that there is. 10 Remember always that what you believe you will teach. 11 Believe with me, and we will become equal as teachers.
Unquote (ACIM:T-6.I.6)

Furthermore besides correcting our interpretation of the Crucifixion, mostly in this section of Chapter 6, but which is touched on in many more places in the Course, the Course also makes it clear why the ego HAD to misinterpret the Crucifixion the way it did in a section of Chapter 19, under The Obstacles to Peace. There it is also made clear why we have to forgive Jesus for not being the bitter idol that Christianity made of him.

I am made welcome in the state of grace, which means you have at last forgiven me. 2 For I became the symbol of your sin, and so I had to die instead of you. 3 To the ego sin means death, and so atonement is achieved through murder. 4 Salvation is looked upon as a way by which the Son of God was killed instead of you. 5 Yet would I offer you my body, you whom I love, its littleness? 6 Or would I teach that bodies cannot keep us apart? 7 Mine was of no greater value than yours; no better means for communication of salvation, but not its Source. 8 No one can die for anyone, and death does not atone for sin. 9 But you can live to show it is not real. 10 The body does appear to be the symbol of sin while you believe that it can get you what you want. 11 While you believe that it can give you pleasure, you will also believe that it can bring you pain. 12 To think you could be satisfied and happy with so little is to hurt yourself, and to limit the happiness that you would have calls upon pain to fill your meager store and make your life complete. 13 This is completion as the ego sees it. 14 For guilt creeps in where happiness has been removed, and substitutes for it. 15 Communion is another kind of completion, which goes beyond guilt, because it goes beyond the body.
Unquote (ACIM:T-19.IV.A.17)

In other words: for the separate self to have its cake and eat it too, Jesus must die for our sins, and the "salvation" the ego sees in this is that it is now real, having been granted a right to exist because of Jesus' sacrifice. Thus the Christian interpretation of the crucifixion makes the world real, therefore makes sin real (we really did separate from God) makes the body real, equates Jesus with the body, and curiously keeps guilt in circulation, for now we can feel good and guilty over Jesus' dying for our shenanigans: after all, death is now real too.

Therefore we have to forgive Jesus at some point for NOT being the magical savior who lets us get away with it, but rather being the very unwelcome (to our ego) teacher of love, who asks that we first take responsibility for OUR choice for the separation, since if we do not first own that choice, we could not change our mind and decide to follow Jesus instead of the ego. The more we do so we can then join with him in demonstrating that he lives in us, or as the Course sums it up, giving very practical and graphical expression to the theme of undoing the crucifixion:

You will not find peace until you have removed the nails from the hands of God's Son, and taken the last thorn from his forehead. 2 The Love of God surrounds His Son whom the god of crucifixion condemns. 3 Teach not that I died in vain. 4 Teach rather that I did not die by demonstrating that I live in you. 5 For the undoing of the crucifixion of God's Son is the work of the redemption, in which everyone has a part of equal value. 6 God does not judge His guiltless Son. 7 Having given Himself to him, how could it be otherwise?
Unquote (ACIM:T-11.VI.7)

In Chapter 4, The Illusions of the Ego, there is the following statement, which also puts all this in perspective:

The journey to the cross should be the last "useless journey." 2 Do not dwell upon it, but dismiss it as accomplished. 3 If you can accept it as your own last useless journey, you are also free to join my resurrection. 4 Until you do so your life is indeed wasted. 5 It merely re-enacts the separation, the loss of power, the futile attempts of the ego at reparation, and finally the crucifixion of the body, or death. 6 Such repetitions are endless until they are voluntarily given up. 7 Do not make the pathetic error of "clinging to the old rugged cross." 8 The only message of the crucifixion is that you can overcome the cross. 9 Until then you are free to crucify yourself as often as you choose. 10 This is not the gospel I intended to offer you. 11 We have another journey to undertake, and if you will read these lessons carefully they will help prepare you to undertake it.
Unquote (

In other words, again, it is purely our choice to be crucified by clinging to the ego's values, or to chose life and join with Jesus in the resurrection. The contrast between these two choices is made very graphical on another level in Chapter 27, in a section called "The Picture of the Crucifixion," by depicting the choice for the ego's favorite role as victim as follows:

5 The sick are merciless to everyone, and in contagion do they seek to kill. 6 Death seems an easy price, if they can say, "Behold me, brother, at your hand I die." 7 For sickness is the witness to his guilt, and death would prove his errors must be sins. 8 Sickness is but a "little" death; a form of vengeance not yet total.
Unquote (ACIM:T-27.I.4)

... and contrasting it with the choice for life, which Jesus offers us, as follows:

Into this empty space, from which the goal of sin has been removed, is Heaven free to be remembered. 2 Here its peace can come, and perfect healing take the place of death. 3 The body can become a sign of life, a promise of redemption, and a breath of immortality to those grown sick of breathing in the fetid scent of death. 4 Let it have healing as its purpose. 5 Then will it send forth the message it received, and by its health and loveliness proclaim the truth and value that it represents. 6 Let it receive the power to represent an endless life, forever unattacked. 7 And to your brother let its message be, "Behold me, brother, at your hand I live."
Unquote (ACIM:T-27.I.10)

Copyright, (c) 2005, Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Reordering the NT, post Thomas, ACIM, DU

Especially since the appearance on the market of The Disappearance of the Universe, by Gary R. Renard, (affectionately known as "DU") a precedent has been set to take a fresh look at the traditions concerning Jesus. It has been gradually recognized that the sayings Gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas (GoT) are indeed the oldest form of Gospel, often with the least amount of corruption. Theology has been struggling to come to grips with this ever since, and so are many reading groups on the gospel according to Thomas.
(Note, clicking on the title of this article will connect you to a site listing the NT Apocrypha,

Having followed some on-line discussions in particular it is clear how much people struggle with the Thomas material, in particular if they come from a Christian background. Once people begin to surmise the non-dualistic teachings reflected in this material, however, it starts to make sense, and allow a fairly coherent understanding. What is not yet clearly understood is the upshot of all this, namely the unequivocal conclusion that Jesus was not a Christian. Nor did he teach any of the major tenets of Christianity, those that led to its breaking off from Judaism and becoming a separate religion onto itself.

DU is an exploration of the Thomas connection in light of ACIM, and it shows the inner consistency of the teaching between ACIM and GoT. In the process it sets an important precedent for scholarship in this area, namely it establishes the connection between ACIM and GoT on the basis of the consistency of content, not form. This includes pointing out that once we understand the teachings, it is easy which sayings in Thomas are original, and which are somehow compromised, be it they are corrupted, or just plain additions from a different origin. Biblical scholarship has been stymied by attempting to deal with spiritual teachings on the basis of form, because of the naturally Newtonian orientation of the scholarly tradition, which rests solidly on the assumption of the primacy of material facts, dates, times, places etc. As students of A Course in Miracles, however; we necessarily see spirit as the source and the world as the effect, and we therefore must recognize the limits of this form of scholarship. And it becomes evident that traditional Biblical scholarship may be able to do some groundwork, which is useful, although it can never do justice to the material unless one knows and understands the teaching framework that Jesus represents, which involves the experience of learning to follow him in one's life, not mere book learning or learned reflection. Hence the disparaging remarks about the "scribes and Pharisees" etc. in the Gospel stories. They are the ones who elevate form over content, the effect of which is to kill the spirit, reflecting the fact that their faithfulness is to the ego's thought system instead of to the Holy Spirit.

In as much as GoT does not contain all those theological tenets that made Christianity what it is (vicarious salvation, physical second coming, Eucharist, emphasis on the crucifixion and the body, etc.) the connection GoT - ACIM further serves to "out" the contradictory thought system of Paul, which did make Christianity what it is. In the way the Course addresses and reinterprets all of the key theological concepts in Christianity, it practices very specifically what it preaches, namely to question every value that we hold, in the process holding up Christian theology as the teaching example of how the ego system works.

Others have analyzed carefully how Paul's distortions came about, the most conclusive presentation being Hyam Maccoby's Paul and the Invention of Christianity, which is a breath of fresh air in this area. The line of interpretation of Jesus which Paul founded was to become dominant, and was an important example of how the ego sets out to reinterpret Jesus and give him a role in the dream, not least to surreptitiously give meaning to the dream with the expectation of the second coming, which in and of itself is rendered meaningless (and harmless to the ego) by dint of its reinterpretation as a (future!) physical event: the ego's purpose in the first place, i.e. to reaffirm the separation at all cost. In other words, this bit of theology spiritualizes the dream, which was Paul's real mission.

The deeper we get into all of this, the more it seems desirable to disassemble and reassemble our NT in this light. The order of the books as it has come down puts Matthew first, to establish the theological tenets of the "New Covenant," establishing Christian teachings as somehow validated by the Jewish tradition, but also superior to it, superseding it. Next comes Mark, which should have really been first since it is the oldest of the canonical Gospels, and the least adulterated by Pauline influence. Luke and Acts were originally one book, with the clear objective of validating Paul's ministry, and his interpretations as well as the "Acts" which led to Christianity's becoming what it became. John is a different kettle of fish altogether, written from a much more spiritual standpoint, and much later, grappling with the concept of Jesus in a way that does not always easily harmonize with the synoptics.

Obviously once we realize that the distinction of "canonical" versus "apocryphal" was determined only by who the winners were in the battle for recognition amongst early Christians, we might now be tempted to go back and attempt a new ordering of the NT material. I could suggest the following as at least a first attempt:

Thomas, Mark, Matthew, Luke & Acts, John, Acts of Thomas, Andrew, and John, The Gospels of Peter, Philip, and Mary, Dialogue of the Savior, The Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea, The Pauline Corpus, Revelation. Next to that, our Old Testament should also definitely include the Apocrypha, as indeed a few Bible editions do today. This is only a "quick and dirty" first attempt. While there are several wonderful collections in the market place today which attempt to supplement the missing (suppressed) materials, the ones that stand out are Willis Barnstone's The Other Bible, James Robinson's The Nag Hammadi Library, Bart D. Ehrman's Lost Scriptures, but most particularly the lovely and well organized editions of Marvin Meyer, starting with his edition of the Gospel of Thomas (this edition is favored by Gary Renard), and his collections The Gospels of Mary, and The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus. For those readers who are attracted to these materials, the best guidance is to respect the obvious historical contexts, which can be very helpful, but to follow one's inner guidance to separate truth from fiction. Having a foundation in the teachings of ACIM, it becomes indeed obvious very quickly how to separate the chaff from the wheat.

Finally on the strength of the argument of inner consistency we might include the Valentinian Gospel of Truth, and in the appendix we might be tempted to include Henry J. van Dyke's "The Fourth Wise Man," as well as at least some of Selma Lagerlöf's collection of "Christ Legends." Both of these last two are part of a living tradition that straddled the ages.

The reason to include Paul at all is because we cannot deny the fact that he had a great influence, not to mention he is the prime example of how the ego system reinterprets Jesus. Therefore he is an important teacher, as much as are all the other apostles, demonstrating for us the vagaries of their own attempts to come to grips with the meaning of Jesus in their lives. In that regard their successes and failures are helpful to us all in the many moments when we are tempted to repeat their mistakes. The spirit of it is, like Ken Wapnick has said about the practice of ACIM, that the point of being a good Course student is to be a lousy Course student but forgive yourself for it. What the apostles modeled for us, is ourselves in our attempts to follow Jesus, complete with falling down and getting up again. Their greates value to us as teachers comes from allowing us to see ourselves in them and forgiving them, and ourselves through them.

As an alternative to the above, we might propose a beginners' Gospel, consisting of the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mark, and I might recommend with it the modern rendering of Mark by Regina Dawn Akers as a parallel study text. This trio would allow us to form a profound and fresh understanding of Jesus.

If we survey these materials in the right spirit, what comes across to us more and more is the very consistency of Jesus' teachings across time and space, as well as his presence in different forms at different times. Somehow it makes his presence more present to realize that he is and always was outside the time/space hologram, as our Internal Teacher, helping us to find our way back home.

Copyright (c) 2005, Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.