Bethsaida: Q and John

I mentioned yesterday how the first chapter of John (the last canonical gospel to be written) gives a detailed version of an early episode in the Jesus story set in Bethsaida. The featured characters are Peter, Andrew and–oddly enough–Philip.

We also have a Bethsaida story of sorts, but this one is from the much earlier Q Source, the sayings gospel used by both the “Team Luke” scribes and the scribes of ‘Team Matthew”. This early Bethsaida story has Jesus condemning the cities of Bethsaida and Chorazin for their failure to repent in response to miracles.

What we have then is an early gospel source containing a strenuous denunciation of Bethsaida but lacking a narrative, and a much later gospel containing a detailed narrative but lacking the rejection contained in the Q Source. (John 1:44 and Luke 10:12-13).

It is significant that no narrative of the Q Source’s miracles, unrepentence and rejection is recorded in John, despite the presence of so many  “eye witness” characters in the Bethsaida narrative in John 1.

It is also significant that the Q Source’s Bethsaida outline of 1) miracles, 2) rejection, and 3) denunciation is very familiar in the canonical Gospels.

I believe the earlier Q account is closer to the events in time and more historically literal than the Johannine account, which was written many decades later. But that difference does not require me to “reject the Bible”.

(Note: A document’s historical value is not the same as it’s homiletic value or some other specific value. All scripture remains inspired, and remains valuable for a variety of end users.)

From the evidence, I concluded that the rejection and hostility in Luke 10:12-13 is truer to historical events than John 1.

The next question then is why the difference? I will draw out what seem like logical conclusions.

◼️ The later Johannine scribes did not want to speculate on or look into the Bethsaida rejection and denunciation episode.


◼️The Johannine scribes DID understand what the Bethsaida episode was about, and repurposed that episode’s dramatic template in the more universally applicable Passion Narrative.

◼️ For some reason the Johannine scribes judged the Q Source’s Bethsaida episode to be too controversial, inexpedient,  counterproductive, unedifying, irrelevant or puzzling to develop straightforwardly.

◼️ Johannine scribes did not, however, ignore 1) the significance of Bethsaida as the place where the disturbance began, 2) the presence of numerous men who had a relationship with Jesus, and 3) the name Philip.

◼️In canonical John the Johannine authorship left the door open for other information about Jesus to emerge.

“Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

Whether it’s a literal courtroom or the courtroom of history, it is often possible to develop a relatively accurate account of events from conflicting and inconsistent sources.

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Anti-Gay Persecution in the Bible

There is evidence of homophobic persecution recorded in a gospel, two deaths occurred, but the evidence is complex.

It’s like discovering a grave site in some woods in Poland and having to figure out what happened to the victims, when and why. Instead of digging in the ground, you have to dig through old documents.

If you’re looking for a polished little parable or miracle story, with a tidy beginning, middle, and pithy maxim at the end, this isn’t that kind of thing.

This is about the triàl of two gay and lesbian couples. This is about how two people were executed. The really long version explains that some early Christian scribes didn’t want to explain why Jesus was talking about gays and lesbians.

For background, the city of Bethsaida was on the north end of the Sea of Galilee. A number of Jesus stories are set in Bethsaida by the gospel writers. One such story is about three Jesus followers named Peter, Andrew and Philip (John 1:44). There is also a famous denunciation of Bethsaida and Chorazin for not repenting (Luke 10:12-13).

In 30 CE there was a major status change for Bethsaida. After perhaps ten years of improving the city’s infrastructure (harbor, fortifications, housing), the town’s legal status was elevated to Imperial Polis. Among other legal and jurisdictional changes, after 30 CE anyone born in Bethsaida would automatically be a Roman citizen.

Far from being a little fishing village in sleepy Galilee, Bethsaida was at a breakthrough moment economically and politically. Palestinians who wanted the advantages of Roman citizenship for their as-yet-unborn children could migrate to Bethsaida, settle, and have their kids.

This elevation in the Palestinian city’s status increased the regional influence of Rome, and decreased the prestige and influence of local tribes and peoples. The entity most affected was the Jerusalem temple-state.

The Jewish temple-state was already feeling the cultural and political squeeze of Tiberius and Sepphoris. Adding a new urban center to the mix was yet another political challenge to Jerusalem’s hegemony in its historical backyard.

To meet this political challenge proactively, the Jerusalem temple-state would explore its options. One particular temple-state representative, Pharisee Yohanan b. Zakkai, initiated a legal action to, as it were, stay in the game in the political and legal life of Bethsaida.

Jewish leaders used to call homosexuality “the sin of the gentiles”. Through this legal prosecution they could also discourage same-sex activity among Diaspora Jews by making the gentile sexual partners subject to the same arrest and execution as the Jewish partner.

The creation of this Roman polis was a strategic empire-wide opportunity for the Pharisees. If Yohanan b. Zakkai’s legal gambit worked, he would have achieved a precedent that Jewish officials could use in any Diaspora community in the Empire. 

If R. Yohanan were able to impose the authority of Torah over non-Jews in a single imperial jurisdiction, he would also be giving to his colleagues abroad an emotional tool to persuade gay and lesbian Jews to not find sexual partners among gentiles. If someone did, and the couple was not entirely discrete, a loved gentile partner could potentially face execution under Jewish law, as far away as Alexandria, Tarsus or Rome.

A test case was prepared, possibly timed to coincide with the effective date of Bethsaida’s elevation to imperial polis. Two mixed-ethnicity same-sex couples were arrested in Bethsaida, or possibly in Bethsaida and nearby Chorazin (see Luke 10:12-13). The couples could have been selected because of their visibility, influence or notariety.

But whether or not the couples resided in both cities or were targeted for arrest for reasons other than simply being sexual transgressors is not critical to this scenario.

Two mixed-ethnicity same-sex couples were arrested for trial. Since the Jews were not authorized to execute people charged with capital crimes, the case was prosecuted by the Pharisee Yohanan b. Zakkai.

(Decades later Rabbi Yohanan appears as second in command during the Siege of Jerusalem, and finally the chief legal mind in the founding of Yavneh.)

The presiding magistrate at this trial, the Roman surrogate who would hear the case, was Philip the Tetrarch.

(Philip administered the area that today is northern Israel and southern Syria. A few years after his death the area would be consolidated under the name The Roman Province of Arabia.)

Yohanan b. Zakkai argued his case, undoubtedly using Torah and probably precedents hammered out in previous decades as well. The case hinged on the prosecution’s insistence that in a certain capital case the Law demanded the execution of “both the ox and its owner”.

Philip the Tetrarch ruled that, as usual, the Pharisees were authorized to prosecute Jews according to Torah, but non-Jews were still not subject to Torah.

Thus, Philip’s ruling came down to us as,

“There shall be two men in one bed; one shall be seized and the other shall be let go.

“Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be seized and the other shall be let go.” (Darby)

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Cultural Relativism and Iconoclasts

The word “Iconoclast” refers to someone who attacks or destroys “icons”. Historically, the word refers to people who felt that certain religious statues and paintings were worshipped, and were therefore idols, idols that deserved to be destroyed.

“Cultural relativism” is a belief that all religions, ethical traditions, norms and beliefs are just human things and none are absolute, they are just the things a certain part of the herd agrees on locally.

An iconoclast does not seem to accept cultural relativism. An iconoclast seems to reject pluralism, relativism and diversity.

We primates tend to like iconoclasts who destroy beliefs with which we disagree. And on the other hand, we tend to dislike iconoclasts who attack things we like or believe in.

Iconoclasts are like heroes and champions. We primates tend to like or dislike them based on whether we feel they are for us or against us.

Under our current system in the U.S., one role of government is to play referee between competing groups and their heroes.

Thus the primary school injunction, “Use your words.”

What does cultural relativism imply about iconoclasm?

Let me put it this way. The best government practices cultural relativism, no màtter how iconoclastic a particular candidate sounds in order to win an election.

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A Reader Asks

In response to my last post on the purpose of rational thought, a long-time reader asked this:

“Just curious. If you don’t believe we were created, thus saying you don’t believe in God or the Bible, then why bother trying to prove it means, what you want it to mean? Can’t you just say you are atheist and reject that the Bible came from GOD or that there even is a GOD for that matter? Why are you arguing what GOD meant if you don’t believe he even exists?”

First, Jason, it’s good to hear from you again.

I might be mistaken, but it sounds as if you think the Bible should only be read by true believers, or perhaps only studied by true believers.

Isaiah quotes God saying that his word “will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

I am sure you have confidence that God is able to accomplish his purposes as he wills. From your perspective, if God wills to harden my heart in unbelief, that is his prerogative.

I am but clay, an imperfect vessel. With my small mind, I cannot accept the picture of God presented by my tribe of origin, where I found no place and no welcome. So be it.

I care for my literal brother and sisters, who never left the tribe. Sometimes I write for them, in the language they understand, using the authority they acknowledge.

Paul wrote, All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

That’s one of the first verses I memorized as a kid.

I use the Scripture for its intended purpose, for teaching, rebuke, correction, and for training in righteousness.

It is true, my tiny pea-brain cannot accept the picture of God distributed by my tribe. If I am wrong, I trust that the God of the Universe will forgive my frailty and limitations.

To my knowledge, I have nothing but positive regard for the members of my former tribe. These are people for whom, you believe, Christ died.

Woe untome if I ignored the command of the canonical Jesus and did not do unto my former tribe members what I would have done for me.

My wish for my detractors and critics is this: the same sense of fulfillment that I desire for myself.

Why do I do this? It might be because of love, or loyalty, or a desire that they accomplish the good snd lofty goals described in the Bible.

I know that some people don’t want my input. That’s fine.

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The Purpose for Rational Thought

Let me begin this was. Homo sapiens are nearly hairless social primates with opposable thumbs, larger brains than our primate cousins, and a voice box, and are motivated by instincts.

Other animals act from instinct, and some of their instincts are shaped and educated, the way a mother predator teaches her offspring to hunt.

An amoeba hunts and flees hunters quite instinctively. Higher life forms sort between competing instincts when, for example, confronted by a threat. A human primate likewise sorts between competing instincts.

The difference between human primates ond other animals is our capacity for rational thought used to articulate a course of action to other.human primates when communal action is required to respond to a threat.

This capacity for thought (analysis and prediction) and communication evolved because it gave certain populations an edge in survival.

Our capacity for rational thought is best used when it is used for the good of the group or the species, even for the ecosystem at large.

Unless indicated otherwise, our capacity for rational thought is misused when it is only used for personal gratification.

Personal gratification is appropriate when we realize that status and hierarchy are instincts. Once we understand the instinctive nature of one-upmanship, then we have to figure out where we can put our capacity for rational thought to good use.

There are several popular sayings that may be appropriate for primates with this increased capacity for rational thought.

“Lead, follow or get out of the way.”

“Fish or cut bait.”

“If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”

“Time to put up or shut up.”

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Primates and their Bibles

Scholars who work with the Bible either study the Bible in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, OR use many different translations.

Non-professional Bible users usually use the translation their congregation uses. The translations these primates use are the same ones used by professional Bible users.

Different primates use the Bible to achieve different goals. Some use it to fit in with the group. Others use it to achieve status in the group. Some primates use it to demonstrate their Independence from the group. These are all valid uses of a Bible.

Where a primate puts its Bible tells you a lot about that individual. Some of us carry our Bibles to special meetings. Some of us put our Bible between copies of the Quran and the I Ching. Others put their Bibles between copies of Das Kapital and Mein Kampf. And other primates put the Bible on their coffee table all by itself.

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We Use the Tools We Have to Get the Things We Want

Someone on Quora made the followi statement. I agreed with a lot of what he wrote, but I believe wisdom and insight are better tools than inaccurate rhetoric. Or is that simply a difference in weapon preference?

He wrote, “The Bible was written by people who knew nothing about science.”

The Book of Job in particular contains a lot of information on what we would today call science. In the book, in their defense of “God” and attacks on Job’s doubts about the justness of “God” some of Job’s friends list constellations, exotic animals, weather phenomena, etc.

I agreed with a lot of what he wrote, but I had to disagree with his use of today’s scientific knowledge as the key measure of value of ancient authors.

We don’t ignore Plato and Aristotle because of their faulty medical knowledge.

Bible writers didn’t have the same degree of understanding of “science” as some college educated people have today, but knowledge of the material universe was certainly known to some.  Scientific knowledge, even the practice of the scientific method is no guarantee of wisdom, empathy, respect, or honesty.

Understand now, I am not a theist, just like I don’t believe in magic or faeries or Piltdown Man.

I think primates need to understand that the Bible is a lot more than talking snakes, talking donkeys and burning cities to the ground.

The Bible is quoted a lot. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “Let justice roll down like a mighty river.” “They shall beat their swords into plow shares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”

Self control, justice, equity, even communist-style land redistribution are commanded in the Bible.

Yeah, people have done a lot of evil things using the Bible. People have done a lot of evil things using science and technology, too.

But I don’t blame Hiroshima on science and technology. I don’t blame the Holocaust on science and technology. I don’t blame the Tuskeegee Experiments on science and technology.

We use the tools we have to get the things we want.

Considering the fact that language acquisition is a valued primate instinct, it’s not surprising that rhetoric feels so natural as a weapon.

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How do we Know God’s Will?

The Bible mentions “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The Bible says that the Spirit of God bubbles up within you like a spring of living water. Jesus said, in Luke 17, “The kingdom of God is within you.”

We need to trust that this is true, and learn how to listen to the “still, small voice.” Some people disagree, saying, “That inner voice stuff is too subjective. The Bible is our only objective guide.” Well, that Bible to which they refer says otherwise.

If you loved someone, would you be content to communicate by letter or email or FB, and never be with the person, in person?

Will you make mistakes? Of course you will. So? Everyone makes mistakes. God knows we make mistakes. Somehow we all seem to manage.

Paul said that gentiles have God’s will written on their hearts. How do people who have never heard the name of Christ know God’s will? That they should love others? That they should not think too highly of themselves?

Ultimate Reality always has a witness, a way of communicating with us, even when people understand it differently.

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A Reader Asks

“Hi there! I’m starting my journey with Christ and started in the gospels with Matthew. In the New Living Translation it says “Two women will be grinding flour at the mill” I just wanted to make sure I was not taking it out of context!”

Hi Brianna — I love this question! So much that I may need two or three posts to answer you. But don’t worry. I’ll start with the main thing you’ve brought up.

There is a difference between Luke 17:35 and the version in Matthew, and you seem to want to know why. There are a lot of reasons why, far more than I will ever know. But I will begin with a really short response first.

First, no word like flour (or grain or wheat) is in the Greek of Matthew 24:41. The word mill is there, however.

Second, the word mill was added by one of the teams of writers who worked specifically on writing Matthew. A more original version of this verse is Luke 17:35, which does not have a mill. Luke reads, “Two women shall be grinding together.”

Something I haven’t mentioned much is how the New America Standard Bible translates Luke’s version of that verse.

“There will be two women grinding at the same place.”

Talk about ambiguous. Not just grinding together, but grinding at the same place.

You quoted from the NLT. The NLT translators didn’t like that kind of ambiguity, so they added a word they say was for clarity, the word flour. That word flour, as I said, is not in the Greek text of Luke 17:35.

By itself, adding a word is not the end of the world.  Translators have to find good words for their translation work all the time, no matter the text, no matter the languages, no matter the age of the text.

What happens is that many people who read, use and translate the Bible often have political convictions and various moral priorities in addition to their day job.

These translators with different political convictions and different moral priorities all know there are several words they could use to translate an original word. So they all consider the effect the different words they choose will have on the readers. They consider the consequences of their translation.

For example, the word doulos is used all through the New Testament. Doulos means slave. But most contemporary translations don’t use the word slave. They use the word servant.

To continue using the word slave would be bad in various situations. Take for example Kenya, where Islam is 10% of the population and growing.

It happens that slavery still exists in much of the world. The Quran emphasizes that the Prophet Muhammed ended slavery in devout nations. A Bible that records Jesus and Paul discussing slavery in accepting and uncritical language might not be helpful for Christian pastors and missionaries in a country like Kenya, which deals with popular Islam.

Or consider the West. The Christian world-view is steadily losing credibility in the face of discoveries in Astrophysics and Paleontology. As in Kenya, it is a major waste of energy for employees of Christendom to have to repeatedly disavow slavery.

But a more literal translation of doulos would still be slave.

Unfortunate for some pastors, this problem of uncertainty muddies the water for their claim that the Bible is “the authoritative Word of God.”

“How can we be certain of God’s will if we don’t have God’s exact words?”

“Gee, how can we really trust the Bible if it’s all so complicated?”

One last word before I pause. The Bible says, “All scripture is inspired by God, and is useful” in in many contexts, so that “you may be thoroughly equipped for any good work.”

Brianna, if you feel God has called you to proclaim something like inerrancy, that’s not my business. But if you.want to be equipped for living your life the you know God wants, the Bible is a good place to begin.

Remember, giving someone a cup of water doesn’t require that you can even read.

I’m going to stop now, Brianna, I’m pretty sure I’ll have more to write about your question soon. Please ask more questions when they come up.

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Primates and Puzzles

Once upon a time a Dreamer dreamt a dream.

In the dream there was a very old building that had many rooms.

In each room a herd of primates busied themselves at a large table putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

Other primates had been working on their puzzles for a long time. One primate handed the Dreamer an odd piece they’d found in the box lid.

In many other rooms the same piece was in piles of red balloon pieces. But the Dreamer realized it probably wasn’t a balloon piece.

The Dreamer looked through the little box lid, and tried to fit the piece with many other pieces. After a long time the Dreamer put twenty pieces together. They looked good. But then he thought to himself, “The puzzle has thousands of pieces. Where fit?”

One primate said to the Dreamer, “No, no, you’ve put the pieces together wrong.” Another primate said, “That looks like it fits over there,” and pointed.

Different groups of primates were working on their puzzles in the different rooms. Many of them had been working on their puzzles for generations. And in some rooms they didn’t use the same pieces others used.

Then the Dreamer thought, “All the primate teams are putting the edge pieces together different from the others.”

One primate told the Dreamer, “A long time ago some primates took scissors to pieces to make them fit. How weird is that? Most primates won’t believe you if you tell them their puzzle pieces were trimmed, but from a distance you don’t notice. It’s still pretty.”

The Dreamer saw there were many different box lids laying in the various rooms. Some boxlids were very old, some were newer. Some of them looked elegant, but others were very mysterious. Most were quite pretty, but they were all handmade.

Then the Dreamer woke up and said, “What an odd dream.”

And the Dreamer’s partner said, “Tell me your dream.”

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