Sep 212017
 

Today is the feast of St Matthew the Apostle (מַתִּתְיָהוּ‎‎ Mattityahu or מתי‎ Mattay, “Gift of YHVH”; Ματθαῖος Matthaios) who, according to the Greek Bible, was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and, according to Christian tradition, was one of the four Evangelists. Well, Matthew the Apostle and the person who wrote the gospel that became the Gospel According to Matthew are without a doubt two different people, but they both get celebrated today (as the same person), so I’ll go with the flow even though I’m more interested in the gospel than in the apostle who is a tad one dimensional.

Matthew the apostle is mentioned in Matthew 9:9 and Matthew 10:3 as a publican who, while sitting at the “receipt of custom” in Capernaum, was called to follow Jesus. Those passages suggest that Matthew collected taxes from the Judean people for Herod Antipas. That’s how he’s characterized in Christian tradition. Matthew is also listed among the twelve, but without identification of his background, in Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13. In passages parallel to Matthew 9:9, both Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27 describe Jesus’ calling of the tax collector Levi, the son of Alphaeus, but Mark and Luke never explicitly equate this Levi with the Matthew named as one of the twelve apostles. That’s the sum total of what we know from the gospels.  As such the information is not much of an addition to the gospel story. The gospel attributed to Matthew has much more to offer.

First we must understand that the gospel was originally anonymous and was not attributed to the apostle Matthew until the 2nd century. Scholars usually date it in the period 80 to 90 CE which means it’s highly unlikely to have been written by an eyewitness, let alone an apostle. The gospel itself does not claim to have been written by an eyewitness, and the scholarly consensus is that it, and Luke, were written using Mark as a source book. What is most interesting to me are the parts of Matthew that are not found in the other gospels, and the special spin that Matthew puts on materials it has in common with the other gospels.  I’ll just hint at the complexity here.

That Matthew was written by a Jew is patent from the opening genealogy.  Genealogies were of enormous importance and interest to writers of the Hebrew Bible, and many laypersons tend to skip over the lists of “X begat Y” because they don’t know how to read them.  I am an anthropologist, so I know better.  First question to ask is, “Who begins the genealogy?” This is the person whose identity is critical.  In Matthew the genealogy of Jesus begins with Abraham emphasizing that he was one of God’s chosen people destined to inherit Israel. Matthew wants to make it clear with his genealogy that Jesus was a Jew. (By contrast, Luke traces the genealogy of Jesus to Adam, emphasizing that Jesus was a man). Matthew’s genealogy (and other parts of the gospel) tells us, by inference, that the author was a Jew who was intent on proving that Jesus was the Jewish messiah. The rest of the genealogy cements this point, with stress on the fact that every 14 generations there was a key event in Jewish messianic history, thus: Abraham, king David, Babylonian Exile, Jesus.

The nativity of Jesus in Matthew is unique and quite different from the story in Luke (the only other place in the gospels where the narrative appears). Mark and John launch straight into the baptism and the ministry with no childhood tales. Matthew’s version has no manger, shepherds, angels etc. He mentions the Magi (Wise Men from the east), then gives us the slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt. So we can add gold, frankincense and myrrh, plus the star to our Christmas decorations, and if we pay attention (as I do), we add Epiphany, not to mention the 12 days of Christmas into the equation.

For me the centerpiece of Matthew, and Christianity in general, is the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5 to 7).  All you need to know about Christianity is there. Here you’ll find the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, along with a ton of pithy sayings that sum up discipleship and the Christian life.  It is bedrock for me; the place I return again and again. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus never delivered the sermon as given in Matthew, but it contains original sayings from lists that must have been widely circulated after Jesus died. It’s possible that it’s like the preaching of Jesus even if it is not an exact copy.  We have scores of examples in ancient Greek and Latin texts of speeches given by key people at critical moments that no one expected to be verbatim transcripts. What was necessary was to convey the essence of a speech, not the precise wording. I imagine that that is what Matthew was aiming for.

Our recipe for the day is easily taken from Matthew 14:

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.  

Bread and fish is a great combination.  Of course, if you want to be hyper-New York Jewish you should have lox (smoked salmon) with cream cheese on a bagel (I like mine toasted). When I am in England I eat buttered bread and smoked fish all the time. It’s easy to find smoked halibut, trout, and (especially) whiting. When I was a small boy (preschool) in Eastbourne, on the south coast, my mother sometimes made me poached whole plaice which she served with brown bread.  For reasons I still cannot fathom, she thought the brown bread would prevent the tiny bones from getting stuck in my throat. Sanity and English mothers are rare companions.

Take this day as your opportunity to experiment with the bread and fish of your choice.

Dec 182016
 

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Today is the 4th Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Peace. This completes the Sundays in the Advent season, and I like to think of the coming days until Christmas as akin to Holy Week in Lent. This analogy is apt this year (2016) because Christmas is on a Sunday. But it’s possible for the 4th Sunday of Advent to be on Christmas Eve, in which case there is no gap between it and Christmas Day. Usually there’s at least a few days between the two, and these are the days when I get more in the swing of Christmas proper. I do my Christmas baking, buy presents, send Christmas cards, and play a lot of traditional carols.

On this Sunday we light the fourth of the colored candles on the Advent wreath which makes the room feel a lot more festive than when we began with one solitary candle four weeks ago. You will see (if you have been paying attention) that my Advent wreath is more colorful now. I add bits and pieces in the Advent season.  Only the white Christ candle remains unlit. I’ll light that at midnight on Christmas Eve.

The paired readings for today from the Common Lectionary are Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25.  The salient verses are Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:22-23. Let’s start with Matthew:

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

Matthew is asserting that Jesus was born of a virgin, and the rest of the passage in the gospel is about the problem that arose when Joseph found out that his wife-to-be was pregnant. The passage explains that Mary conceived through the Holy Spirit, and Joseph was not the father (but he accepted the reality). It also says that Joseph and Mary did not have sex until after Jesus was born (but the implication is that they did later).

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Matthew does not go into the whole Bethlehem thing, that’s Luke’s bag, but he does pick up on Isaiah’s prophesy. If you’ve been following my general logic from previous posts you’ll know that my basic argument is that a lot of passages in the gospels are worded so as to make the direct connexion between Jesus and the foretold Messiah. The gospel writers’ huge problem was that Jesus did not match very well with prophesy and so a certain amount of (fictionalized) explaining had to happen. The prophet Joel says that the Messiah was from the house and lineage of David and would be born in Bethlehem, but Jesus was from Galilee. So Luke gives us this ludicrous story of a census decree issued by Augustus that required everyone to return to their ancestral villages to be counted, meaning that Mary and Joseph had to trek to Bethlehem while she was pregnant. There was no census. Jesus was born in Galilee.

Let me also put to rest all the endless attempts to figure out when Jesus was “really” born. All of these attempts are based on Luke’s fiction to begin with. Some people assert that he was born in the summer because the shepherds who visited the manger were out tending their flocks when the angel told them of the birth, which means it must have been summer. You buy this? The narrative itself shows no understanding of pastoral practices in Judah 2,000 years ago. Adult men did not sit around in groups watching their sheep at night. They went to bed. They might have stayed up in the lambing season, but they would not have been all clustered together. Even Luke knew nothing about keeping sheep – he was a city boy (and was not a Jew).

Others try to calculate the timing of the birth based on the Visitation of Mary which links the timing of the birth of John the Baptist to the birth of Jesus and also to the timing of Temple events. You’ll get my opinion of all of that here — http://www.bookofdaystales.com/visitation-mary/  Same story. Luke made all this up (or borrowed it) to help fit in with his beliefs. But there’s more to it than that.

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Matthew and Luke did not have a good grasp of the Hebrew used by the prophets. My considered opinion is that the prophecy from Isaiah in question here was written some time in the 7th century BCE and is an indirect reference to king Josiah – who was purportedly in the Davidic line and made great strides in revitalizing Judah and Jewish religion with the hope of restoring the former glories of the kingdom. That is, Isaiah is not referring to Jesus at all, but to Josiah. Josiah was the great hope of Judah at the time, but unfortunately he was killed in battle, and eventually Judah was crushed by Babylon. So the Messianic hopes died with him. But they were revived in Jesus’ day, even though so many questions remained – Why was Jesus not from Bethlehem? What do we do with people who think John the Baptist is the Messiah? Why was the Messiah crucified? etc. etc. The gospels try to provide the answers.

The thing is that by Luke’s and Matthew’s time the Hebrew of the prophets and the Torah was already archaic and not properly understood. Matthew may have spoken Aramaic which is related to Hebrew, but Luke spoke Greek. Neither was particularly conversant with scriptural Hebrew, nor were many Jews at this time – especially those living outside the general region of Israel. That’s part of the reason that Matthew gives the gloss “God with us” for Immanuel. Anyone conversant with Hebrew would not need this translation. It’s obvious – ‘im (with) anu (us) el (God).

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The full text of Isaiah contains another important misunderstanding by Matthew:

יד  לָכֵן יִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי הוּא, לָכֶם–אוֹת:  הִנֵּה הָעַלְמָה, הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת בֵּן, וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ, עִמָּנוּ אֵל.

The word הָעַלְמָה (ha-‘almah) is critical here. Matthew translates it as “virgin” but it could simply mean “young woman” (including a newly married young woman). That is now the more normal English translation, and is the scholarly consensus. The Virgin Birth is an unnecessary confusion that simply muddies the waters. It came about because Matthew’s Hebrew was not very good and so he assumed that Isaiah was saying that the promised Messiah would be born of a virgin, rather than from a newlywed young woman.

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For new readers who do not know that I am an ordained minister (as well as for those who do), let me explain that getting rid of such non-historical rubbish does not undermine the spiritual power of the Bible for me. Nor is Christmas diminished in its effects on me, even though it is based on a fiction. The Christmas story is deeply rooted in Western tradition and has immense value spiritually even though the literal story is nonsense. What I’m trying to do is rescue Christmas from the crass materialism that dominates it, and inject some spirituality back into it. Today we should reflect on the notion of peace in the world and in our lives.

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I asked my youngest students this week what they do for Christmas. Almost all of them mentioned arrosto (roast) as a part of the Christmas meal (cooked by nonna). They had trouble explaining what they meant in English because “arrosto” is sort of understood without saying what meat you mean. Unfortunately, also, “arrosto” is a cut of meat, not a method of cooking. So there was a lot of confusion. Some of them said that they had the meat roasted, some braised, some boiled. It was a good exercise in vocabulary building – not to mention cultural exchange.

One common Christmas dish is either arrosto di vitello (veal) or arrosto di pollo (chicken) – usually al forno (in the oven).  In Lombardy a festive roast is first boned, then tied, and wrapped with prosciutto. Then it is roast (perhaps with potatoes) in much the same way as you would normally do.  Here’s mine for today:

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Italians typically don’t make a gravy for the meat. I can’t say that I find this terribly appealing but I went along with the practice for today. The meat was very juicy partly because it was a rather fatty cut, and also because the fat from the prosciutto based the meat. In turn the prosciutto was crispy and delicious.

I also made some sausage rolls just to feel at home.

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Dec 282015
 

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Today is the feast of the Holy Innocents, nowadays a minor holiday within the Christmas season, but at one time of greater significance. The story of the Massacre of the Innocents is found in Matthew 2:16–18, although the preceding verses form the context:

When [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. Get up, he said, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him. So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old or under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.

The massacre is not reported outside of the Gospel of Matthew and other later Christian writings based on that gospel. The Roman Jewish historian, Josephus, does not mention it in his history, Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 AD), which reports many of Herod’s misdeeds, including murdering his own sons.

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The story’s first appearance in any source other than the Gospel of Matthew is in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James of c.150, which excludes the Flight into Egypt and switches the attention of the story to the infant John the Baptist:

And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them: Slay the children from two years old and under. And Mary, having heard that the children were being killed, was afraid, and took the infant and swaddled Him, and put Him into an ox-stall. And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him. And there was no place of concealment. And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, says: O mountain of God, receive mother and child. And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her. And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them.

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The first non-Christian reference to the massacre is recorded four centuries later by Macrobius (c. 395-423), who writes in his Saturnalia:

When he [emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered killed, his own son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod’s pig, than his son.

I have not the slightest doubt that Matthew’s account is pious fiction. To accept it would mean accepting that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which I have already thrown into serious doubt, and that magi journeyed from the east following a star, stopped by Herod’s palace, then went on to Bethlehem where they instantly recognized the messiah. This “event” is not attested in any other historical source. It’s clearly a polemic to buttress prophesy which in this case is not about the messiah at all.

The story assumed an important place in later Christian tradition; Byzantine liturgy estimated 14,000 Holy Innocents while an early Syrian list of saints puts the number at 64,000. Coptic sources raise the number to 144,000 and place the event on 29 December. If you are into this kind of thing – estimating numbers for something that never happened – contemporary archeology sets the number of inhabitants of Bethlehem at the time at around 1,000 meaning that the number of children killed would have been no more than 20.

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While we are on the subject of historicity, why did Mary and Joseph head to Egypt (except to satisfy Matthew’s need for symbolism)? Surely they would have been just as safe in Galilee, returning like others after the census (as Luke recounts in Luke 2:39). Did Jews make a habit of running to Egypt when things looked dodgy in Israel? How did they support themselves? Who took them in? Did anyone in Egypt speak Aramaic or did they have to learn a new language? The whole story is not credible.

The “Coventry Carol” is a Christmas carol dating from the 16th century. The carol was performed in Coventry in England as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts the Christmas story from chapter two in the Gospel of Matthew. This haunting carol represent a mother’s lament for her doomed child. It is the only carol that has survived from this play. The author is unknown. The oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the oldest known printing of the melody dates from 1591. Here’s a version that is acceptable, but not great. Best I could find after a considerable search. Although the text is mournful, I find the tempo here too slow, and the setting feeble. It’s impossible, it seems, to find a contemporary musician capable of managing the free flowing measures (or lack of them), and wandering tonality. Short of that, I would prefer it be sung in unison, a capella, as it was in the 16th century. I’ve trained choirs to sing it that way in the past – fighting my music director most of the way.

In the Middle Ages, especially north of the Alps, Holy Innocents was a festival of inversion involving role reversal between children and adults such as teachers and priests, with boy bishops presiding over some church services. In some regions, such as medieval England and France, it was said to be an unlucky day, when no new project should be started.

In Spain, Hispanic America, and the Philippines, El Día de los Santos Inocentes is still a day for pranks, equivalent to April Fool’s Day in other countries. Pranks (bromas) are also known as inocentadas and their victims are called inocentes; alternatively, the pranksters are the “inocentes” and the victims should not be angry at them, since they could not have committed any sin. Media often give fake content or distort news as well. One of the more famous of these traditions is the annual “Els Enfarinats” festival of Ibi in Alacant, where the inocentadas dress up in full military dress and incite a flour and egg fight.

epa03519176 People enjoy the traditional 'Els Enfarinats' battle at Ibi in Alicante, eastern Spain, 28 December 2012. The battle has been held every year for over 200 years on the 28th of December, Holy Innocents' Day (the equivalent of April Fool's day in Spain), and it consists of a group of people, the 'Enfarinats', that take over the 'civil power' in a fight with eggs and flour.  EPA/MORELL

In parts of Spain it is customary to eat huesos de santos (saints’ bones), also commonly eaten on All Saints (Nov. 1). They are not difficult to make, but most people buy them. You can make them completely from scratch by making your own marzipan, but at minimum I buy the marzipan and simply make the filling. As illustrated here, you can dip the huesos in chocolate if you wish.

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Huesos de Santos

Ingredients

½ lb (250 g) marzipan
2 oz (50 gr) granulated sugar
1 oz (25 ml) water
2 egg yolks

Instructions

I find that rolling marzipan works best on a marble board, but you can also use a regular pastry board or counter top. Dust the surface with powdered sugar and roll the marzipan out to about ¼ inch thick. Then cut it into 1 x 1½ inch rectangles. Make long tubes out of the rectangles by rolling them around the handle of a wooden spoon or similar rod that has been liberally dusted with powdered sugar. Press the long sides of the tube together and carefully ease it off the rod. This will take a few trial runs to do it so that you don’t deform the tube. If you mess up, re-roll and try again. Place the finished rolls on a tray and chill.

Beat the egg yolks in a bowl or top of a double boiler. Bring water in the bottom of the double boiler or deep saucepan to a gentle boil. In another pan bring the water and sugar to a boil to form a syrup. While whisking the yolks vigorously, pour the syrup into the eggs. Slow pouring and constant whisking are critical, otherwise you will scramble the eggs. Then, place the egg and syrup mixture over the boiling water and continue to stir it until it thickens substantially.

Let the yolk filling cool a little and, using a pastry bag, fill each marzipan tube from both ends.