Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia—and Identification of Those Who Instigate It.
Whittling a Deal Out of God

Ehrman on Matthew—and How I Was Always the Cleaner

During Mike’s fanatical and zealous ministry days, he worked part-time in a parking lot. During my steady-as-she-goes balanced days, I worked as a cleaner. Sometimes in the ministry I would accompany him. When householders would slam the door in his face I would say to myself, “Well, they really had no choice.” (not to worrry—he’s been gone for a long time now)

Mike had worked hard to land his Public Parking job. The owner told him day after day that he had no openings. Moreover, he kept pointing out that Mike was overqualified—probably he would last one or two boring days and quit. However, Mike’s favorite scripture was the one about the widow who nagged the unrighteous judge to get what she wanted.

Any counselor on job-seeking will tell you that you do not go day after day to badger the would-be employer after he has turned you down. Mike swore by the system and used it repeatedly. Eventually that employer would throw all his notions of what is proper out the window and hire you just to get you out of his hair, after which you work to prove that he made a good decision. Of course, you have to have incredibly thick skin to pursue this strategy. Mike had that.

Every day he showed up bright and early to wheedle the parking lot owner, Every day he was turned away. One day the fellow said, “I don’t know why you want this job so much, but as it turns out, one of the guys didn’t show this morning. If you want to take his place, I’ll hire you.” Thus began several years for Mike in the parking lot shack, where he could study to his heart’s content all day long and if thieves had towed away every car in the lot, he would not have noticed.

In time, he also picked up a distributorship for a line of cheap jewelry. Anyone who knew jewelry stayed far away from the stuff, but many didn’t know it any better than he—if it shined, it sold.

Mike was very taken at the time with his role of teaching the Bible for free. He loved Jesus words, “You received free—give free. No making a buck off teaching the Word of God for him! Pretty much everything was a scam in his eyes—he had been raised in a company of carnival performers—and there was no scam he considered more pernicious than religion.

“I don’t make any money doing this,” he would tell the householder, with earnestness so thick you could cut it with a knife. “I work in a parking lot. Tom works, too, as a janitor.” However, if he was working in affluent areas, he would say “I don’t make any money doing this. I sell jewelry. Tom works, too, as a janitor.” I might as well have held up a mop at that point to confirm his words. His work description changed—mine didn’t!

 

I don’t know why the Great Courses professor can’t get his head around this. When you are addressing an audience, you select arrows from your quiver most likely to help you make your case. Just because you leave the ‘parking lot’ arrow in your quiver to launch the ‘jewelry’ one instead does not mean that it does not exist.

You think you can get this through Professor Ehrman’s head? He leaves Mark to consider Matthew and he develops the theme of how Matthew presents Jesus as “the Jewish messiah.” This is not particularly controversial. Every JW knows it. Well—they may not know it, many of them, because it is an incidental topic, not the centerpiece the Professor makes it of his lecture, but if they hit their own books they will find that it is so. Jerome and Origen even say that the Gospel, alone of all New Testament books, was first written in Hebrew. This second lecture from the Professor annoys less than the first because so much of it purports to prove this point that Witnesses already know.

Alas, he presently veers off into explaining “redaction criticism.” See, the writer of Matthew probably had a copy of Mark, “scholars agree,” so if Mark contains something that Matthew does not it is because the latter “redacted” that something—he took it out because it didn’t suit his purpose. Well, in fact that’s what Mike did in the affluent areas—redacting the parking lot for the jewelry salesman (though I was always a cleaner). Other than annoying me, there is nothing wrong with this—in fact, it is just using common sense to reach your audience. “To the Jews I became as a Jew in order to gain Jews...to those without law I became as without law...to the weak I became weak, in order to gain the weak,” the apostle would write later. You do what you must to reach your audience.

But the professor looks for signs of division. He doesn’t look for signs of agreement. To him the early Bible writers are competing with one another. They are “changing the narrative” so as to promote their own “theologies.” They are all like traveling snake oil salesmen, each hawking his own product, each hoping to run the other off the road. Oh—and with the added nettlement that, since Jesus’ 12 disciples were “peasants” obviously incapable of writing narratives—even given all the time in China—“educated” persons must have written those books and identified themselves as Mark, Matthew, and John, to lend their own view more authority. He all but says it of Jesus’ twelve: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Then the professor comes to the Pharisees. His lecture is not just about what Matthew “redacted” because he didn’t like it—it is also about what he appends because he does like it and wants to change the story. To be the “Jewish messiah” you must pick a fight with those who think you are not, so Jesus does so with the Pharisees.

The professor has already, in a prior lecture, shown himself bewildered that the Pharisees should be known as hypocrites. ‘How can that be?’ he considers, as he presents them as though just nice guys trying to do their best—as any of us would. It is Jesus who calls them hypocrites, not he—they who just have a different “interpretation”—can that possibly justify ad hominem attacks? It is a humanist point of view that the professor exudes. It only needs someone to think it for a viewpoint to be valid. One way to gut scripture is to interpret away whatever you don’t like.

The professor would be a nightmare in the congregation—it’s well that he is not there. The Pharisees were not “professional hypocrites”—he makes a little joke of how he tells his students they didn’t have to take the “hypocritic oath”—they were just a highly committed group of Jews determined to follow the Law as completely as possible. However, the problem with Law was that it was not “explicit” in how it ought to be followed—it was downright “ambiguous” in many areas. You couldn’t work on the Sabbath, for example. That means no harvesting. But what, the professor asks, if you just want something to eat on the Sabbath and pick just enough grain for that purpose? Was that harvesting or not? Well, “a decision has to be made,” he says. What if you walk through the field and accidentally knock some grain off the stalks? Is that harvesting? Once again, “a decision has to be made,” and Pharisees were the ones to make such decisions—decisions on scenarios as picayune as possible—and impose them on others.

What is this with “a decision has to be made?” Nobody has to make such a decision—or rather, they do, but it can be the person deciding for himself. Few human urges are greater than the one to meddle in someone else’s business. “Make it your aim...to mind your own business,” Paul would write later. The Law wasn’t explicit? It was as explicit as it needed to be and was written that way on purpose.

Jesus has it in for the Pharisees in the Book of Matthew, points out the professor, because the purpose of the gospel is to paint him as the “Jewish messiah”—as though proving his credentials by picking fights with those running the show. Probably the most nasty portrayal of the Pharisees is not in Matthew at all, but in John (following the resurrection of Lazarus), but this does not conform to the professors thesis, so he leaves it unmentioned. And Mark, far from exonerating Pharisees, translates certain Hebrew words like ‘corban‘ so that their want of heart can be seen the more clearly. Still, Matthew has a collection of zingers. From the 23rd chapter of the book:

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the seat of Moses. Therefore, all the things they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds, for they say but they do not practice what they say. They bind up heavy loads and put them on the shoulders of men, but they themselves are not willing to budge them with their finger.

All the works they do, they do to be seen by men, for they broaden the scripture-containing cases that they wear as safeguards and lengthen the fringes of their garments.

They like the most prominent place at evening meals and the front seats in the synagogues  and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by men.

But you, do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your Teacher, and all of you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One. Neither be called leaders, for your Leader is one, the Christ. But the greatest one among you must be your minister. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.“

...“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness. These things it was necessary to do, yet not to disregard the other things. Blind guides, who strain out the gnat but gulp down the camel!

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of greediness and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may also become clean.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you resemble whitewashed graves, which outwardly indeed appear beautiful but inside are full of dead men’s bones and of every sort of uncleanness. In the same way, on the outside you appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you build the graves of the prophets and decorate the tombs of the righteous ones, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have shared with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Therefore, you are testifying against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.  Well, then, fill up the measure of your forefathers.”

 

The professor doesn’t take sides. He remains above the fray of “interpretations.” He is a “critical thinker.” Jay wasn’t. When I studied with Jay, if the answer to a question was “the scribes and Pharisees” he would NOT simply give the answer and move on, as I so often wished he would. He would spring up from his chair, strut around his apartment, nose in the air, pompous as could be, and act out the role! He knew hypocrites. He knew ones who loved lording it over others. This stuff goes right to the heart—it either instantly lodges there or it doesn’t. it is silly to try to pretend it is a matter of the head. The heart chooses what it wants—and then charges the head with deriving a convincing rationale for it.

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