As Iron Sharpens Iron

An ongoing and online discussion between: an Orthodox informed Ecumaniac without a denominational home, an ordained Baptist youth pastor with an open mind, a Calvinist worship leader/seminarian with a staggering vocabulary and ability to make a point, and a cradle Catholic with a love/hate relationship to Rome.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Tradition

I went to my brother-in-law's (Presbyterian) church Sunday. The sermon was interesting. It was based on the healing of the lame man at the pool of Bethesda from the 5th chapter of the gospel of John. Before preaching the sermon, the man (not the pastor of the church) spoke of textual differences in his version (RSV) and the pew versions (NIV). The latter contained verse 4 while his did not. Here is verse 4 in the KJV:
For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.
He went on to say that the verse, according to "most authorities" was a later addition or a side note scribbled by a ... scribe.

Well, this caught my attention, so I decided to do a little checking for myself. My first thought was that the KJV, having come largely from the Greek, would have preserved the Greek version. I was correct. Here is a list of translations of the verse, including the Greek. As you can see, most of them do include verse 4.

I noted, with some interest, that the Vulgate did not. This list of translations bears that out, as well as the lack of verse 4 in the RSV. Looking on the online Catholic Encyclopedia, I saw that, despite Jerome's omission, they seem to believe that the later verses show that verse 4 was meant to be included, specifically verse 7:
The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.
Why, then, does this man and other "authorities" see fit to remove the verse? Granted, it seems a little fantastic, but what in the Bible doesn't?

Actually, I already knew the answer. He may or may not have known it, but there is a long-standing tradition in the Church as to why the pool at Bethesda was so important, why it had healing qualities. I've mentioned the legend, that of the True Cross, before on other blogs, but it bears repeating. This time I'm including some source material for your perusal.

First, here is a brief summary with illustrations from a famous set of murals about the True Cross.

Next, I turn to the Golden Legend, which includes this account of the death of Adam:
But all the days of Adam living here in earth amount to the sum of nine hundred and thirty years. And in the end of his life when he should die, it is said, but of none authority, that he sent Seth his son into Paradise for to fetch the oil of mercy, where he received certain grains of the fruit of the tree of mercy by an angel. And when he came again he found his father Adam yet alive and told him what he had done. And then Adam laughed first and then died. And then he laid the grains or kernels under his father's tongue and buried him in the vale of Hebron; and out of his mouth grew three trees of the three grains, of which trees the cross that our Lord suffered his passion on was made, by virtue of which he gat very mercy, and was brought out of darkness into very light of heaven.
I turn again to the Golden Legend for this excerpt from the entry on the True Cross:
It is read in the gospel of Nicodemus that, when Adam waxed sick, Seth his son went to the gate of Paradise terrestrial for to get the oil of mercy for to anoint withal his father's body. Then appeared to him S. Michael the angel, and said to him: Travail not thou in vain for this oil, for thou mayst not have it till five thousand and five hundred years be past, how be it that from Adam unto the passion of our Lord were but five thousand one hundred and thirtythree years. In another place it is read that the angel brought him a branch, and commanded him to plant it the Mount of Lebanon. Yet find we in another place that he gave to him of the tree that Adam ate of, and said to him that when that bare fruit he should be guerished and all whole.

When Seth came again he found his father dead and planted this tree upon his grave, and it endured there unto the time of Solomon. And because he saw that it was fair, he did do hew it down and set it in his house named Saltus. And when the Queen of Sheba came to visit Solomon, she worshipped this tree, because she said the Saviour of all the world should be hanged thereon, by whom the realm of the Jews shall be defaced and cease. Solomon for this cause made it to be taken up and dolven deep in the ground.

Now it happed after, that they of Jerusalem did do make a great pit for a piscine, whereas the ministers of the temple should wash their beasts that they should sacrifice, and there found this tree, and this piscine had such virtue that the angels descended and moved the water, and the first sick man that descended into the water, after the moving, was made whole of whatsoever sickness he was sick of.

And when the time approached of the passion of our Lord, this tree arose out of the water, and floated above the water, and of this piece of timber made the Jews the cross of our Lord. Then, after this history, the cross by which we be saved came of the tree by which we were damned, and the water of that piscine had not his virtue only of the angel but of the tree. With this tree, whereof the cross was made, there was a tree that went overthwart, on which the arms of our Lord were nailed, and another piece above, which was the table wherein the title was written, and another piece wherein the socket or mortice was made, wherein the body of the cross stood in, so that there were four manner of trees, that is of palm, of cypress, of cedar, and of olive. So each of these four pieces was of one of these trees.
As an aside, it is also taught that Golgotha derives its name from Adam's skull, which was buried where Christ was crucified. Here's an excerpt from a page outlining the symbolism of the cross pictured:
Firstly, the skull locates the Crucifixion as taking place at Golgotha, "place of the skull". But tradition has it that this is the skull of Adam. Iconographically, if not literally, it certainly is that: because its inclusion is an assertion that "as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (l Cor. 15: 22). Here, we encounter the understanding of Christ as the New Adam who brings about the restoration of all things. This is the beloved theme of St. Irenaeos of Lyons (c. 130 - 200).

The whole purpose of God is summed up and effected in Christ - the New Adam: all the yearnings of the prophets for the Messiah, a new redemption, a new Exodus, a new Covenant, a new inheritance, a new hope: 'With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Him, things in heaven, and things are on earth." (Ephesians l: 9-10) and of course the vertical bar of the Cross links heaven and earth as Christ is the Heavenly man who descended from heaven and dwelt on earth and extended salvation even to those under the earth - again signified by Adam's skull.
There's also this excerpt from a poem by John Donne called Hymn to God in My Sickness:

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ's cross and Adam's tree, stood in one place ;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.

Needless to say, I was put ill at ease from the outset, so my opinion of his sermon was biased. I didn't like it. I wasn't sure of the purpose of the sermon, although it seemed to touch on a sensitive issue for the church. Perhaps, if I had known more of the situation, I could have judged it better. Towards the end, he mentioned The Da Vinci Code. It raised questions, he though, which was good, except that people were "obsessing over Nicea". He portrayed the council as relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Compared to the fact that Christ healed a lame man at Bethesda, what does Nicea matter.

Had I not already had my hackles up because of his intro, I might have missed this. Nicea not important? The Bible from which he got his story was approved at Nicea. The Symbol of Faith which the majority of the Church recites every Sunday was composed during that council. Not important? That's like saying the Bible itself isn't important.

I know what he meant, really. He was restating Luther, that traditions are fine as long as they don't obscure the Gospel. He meant to say (as he said later) that we shouldn't care whether we're singing Graham Kendrick or Fanny Crosby. I found that humorous, actually. Fanny Crosby is traditional? How about the hymns of St. Ambrose or St. Augsutine. There's some traditional hymns for you. Maybe even Luther or the Wesley brothers. But Fanny Crosby? That's kind of my point, though. To compare Fanny Crosby and the Council of Nicea shows a severe mis-prioritization in tradition ranking. And if that is what that particular church is arguing over, perhaps they should do a little historical survey and argue about some of the big things, like the Filioque or even Works vs. Faith. Fanny Crosby?

I don't mean to mock this particular church. As far as LIVING the Christian life goes, they trump many churches whose theology I find more true to that of the Early Church. I did learn this from the sermon. Probably, in the eyes of God, some of the struggles I named as "big" ones seem as petty and isignificant as being true to Fanny Crosby does to me.