Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Denying Jesus

So I saw this post today by someone on Facebook:

I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. He said deny me in front of your friends and I will deny you in front of my Father. Challenge Accepted: If you are not ashamed Copy and paste!!

I started to reply to the person, but refrained because I figured I'd regret it later, as I always do. I won't, however, regret blogging about it.

In chapter 10 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: "Whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my father in heaven." A popular verse among evangelical Christians, for sure.

This is the only gospel that records this saying of Jesus, making it among what textual scholars call the "M" material - meaning stories and sayings unique to the gospel of Matthew (compared with "L" material for unique stuff in Luke and "Q" material for stuff unique to both Matthew and Luke).

Most scholars would undoubtedly agree that Jesus never made this statement because it sounds suspiciously reflective of the early Christian society in which the author of Matthew was living and writing (80-85 AD) rather than the society in which Jesus lived and spoke (30s AD). The fact that no other gospel records it lends credence to this theory.  It's also worth pointing out that Matthew (as well as the other three gospels) also records the story of Peter denying Jesus three times before his crucifixion. Did Jesus therefore deny Peter before God? Is Peter in hell? If you take Matthew's gospel literally, that's the obvious conclusion.

In any case, whether you agree with scholars that this isn't an authentic saying of Jesus, the saying clearly held profound meaning for early Christians who were, at times, faced with persecution and even execution for being Christians (the main reason why this seems to come out of the culture of the 80s, and not the 30s - no one was being persecuted during Jesus's lifetime for following Jesus). Standing before a magistrate of the Roman Empire, many people denied being Christians so they could avoid being tortured or executed. But this saying was used to encourage Christians not to be afraid to stand up for their beliefs, even in the face of death or torture or social ostracism. The implication was that you might lose your salvation if you denied Christ. Many people were (unnecessarily) martyred in the name of this verse.

Why did the Romans dislike Christians so much? Because they considered them a new and insidious cult who had secretive rituals and who denied the Roman gods and refused to acknowledge the authority and, especially, the divinity, of the Roman emperor. This last point was the primary reason Christianity was frequently outlawed in various portions of the empire. Jews had long been given a pass on denying the Roman gods and the emperor's divinity, but that was because theirs were an ancient and well-respected religious tradition that predated Rome. Christianity, on the other hand, was new and had no antiquity to lend it credence. Think of how many people today feel about Mormonism - a relatively new and secretive cult, invented in America, and espousing strange beliefs and rituals. That's how average Romans viewed Christianity. There were all sorts of crazy rumors about what Christians did, including one that actually accused Christians of sacrificing, then eating, a baby while sitting at a table (which was undoubtedly a conflation of Christian interest in "baby Jesus" and the Lord's supper, where - in the eyes of Romans - Christians ritually ate their own god).

So how does this historical context relate to modern Christianity? To be perfectly frank, it doesn't. Modern Christians aren't persecuted and haven't been since the 4th century. Sure, there has been mistreatment of Christians in parts of the world where Christianity isn't the primary religion, and that continues to some extent even today, but in the Christian west, it's always been Christians doing the persecuting. In the United States, no one has to fear proclaiming their Christianity - depending on which poll you look at, anywhere from 70 to 85 percent of Americans identify as Christian - a vast majority.

That's why this verse has become a popular one for evangelical Christians. It's not about courage in the face of persecution, it's about proclaiming one's faith for the purpose of evangelizing. My Facebook friend isn't proclaiming Jesus even though she thinks she might be persecuted for it. She's proclaiming Jesus because she thinks that's what a good evangelical Christian should do.

In closing, let me also note that failing to copy and paste an evangelical proclamation of your faith on Facebook does not equate to "denying Jesus," as the post strongly implies. This post uses the old trick from the days of mass email forwarding where one was promised good things if they forwarded an email to a certain number of people, or bad things if they didn't. This post makes no promises like that, but the implication is clear that you are "denying Jesus," and Jesus will therefore deny you, if you don't copy and paste it to your profile.

I can't help but wonder if evangelicals like this have ever read another verse from Matthew which, interestingly enough, also is only found in Matthew (the "M" material). Matthew 6:5 says: Do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synogogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward." The whole first part of Matthew chapter 6 is devoted to Jesus encouraging people to practice their religion in private and not proclaim their actions to the world.

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