Saturday, January 22, 2011

Whodunnit - How did Judas Die?

My greatest hobby as a boy was to read books on how true the Bible was.  A great favourite was books that seek to reconcile APPARENT contradictions in the Bible.  All these books have one thing in common – they claim that all errors, inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible are only apparent; they’re not really what they appear to be.  If you place them under the searchlights of truth, you will see that they harmonise beautifully with the rest of Scriptures which are after all the Word of God and how can God be wrong?

The earliest contradiction that I read about was concerning Judas’ death.  Remember, I was only a boy of about ten and I knew too little about the Bible to know there was an APPARENT contradiction here.  The writer brought this contradiction to my attention and he sought to dispel it.

In Matthew 27, we read this:
3 When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”
   “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”
 5 So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.
 6 The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” 7 So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. 8 That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, 10 and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

That would have been fine.  But in Acts 1, we read something different:

18 With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 19 Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.

Where do we find the most contradictions in the New Testament?  In many books of the Bible, it’s very difficult to find contradictions because each book has a monopoly of the stories it tells.  There’s nothing to contradict if each book tells a different story. But the Gospels are different. All four books tell roughly the same story – the story of our Lord.  Scholars have shown that Matthew and Luke obtained their sources from Q and Mark and so, these 3 Synoptic Gospels tend to share more with one another than St John’s Gospel.

There are various ways Bible reconcilers attempt to harmonise the Bible:

1.  If the error is geographical, they insist that the name used in the Bible was a variant name of the town at that time.

2.  If the error is numerical, they tend to be more accepting that it is an error.  It’s a scribal error, they say.  The scribes made an error copying the figure and the Holy Spirit allowed the error because it was not critical and it was obvious to the faithful that there was an error.

3.  If there is an inconsistency between two passages and the inconsistency arises from a difference in numbers, eg. one passage says 5 women observed Christ’s crucifixion and another passage says only one woman did, the harmonisers will always pick the higher number as historically correct and explain that the writer in the other passage was simply zooming in on one of the 5 women and because he didn’t see the need to talk about the other 4, he left them out. He can’t be talking about everybody, can he?

4.  If two passages tell different stories about what is the same event, harmonisers will insist they are two separate events. If the event is indisputably one single event, such as the Resurrection of our Lord (it’s heresy to argue that there are 4 different resurrections to suit the 4 different Gospels), harmonisers will say everything reported in all four Gospels took place one after the other. This can achieve quite a ludicrous result.

5.  If a passage says something that does not come to pass and it’s supposed to have happened much sooner, theologians will come up with new doctrines that sound respectable to hide the error.  One of them that comes to mind is the doctrine of compression in prophecy.  It is used to answer questions like why Christ did not return in the 1st century although he promised to do so?  I will have to write a separate post on this.

Now, let’s look at the death of Judas again. Two passages tell different stories about Judas’ death.  Which solution should harmonisers come up with?  Solution No. 4 of course. Now, Judas’ death can only be one event and so they’ve got to say Judas “hanged himself” and “he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out”.

And believe me, that’s what they are saying!  I’ve heard a few versions:

1.  Judas hanged himself on a tree in the desert.  After a few days, his body became bloated from gaseous emissions as it always happens to a corpse.  The branch broke and his body fell to the rocks below and all his intestines spilled out. But that does not take into account the Field of Blood.

2.  This takes into account everything.  Judas hangs himself.  The chief priests found his body and threw it onto the Field of Blood. It bursts and all his intestines spilled out.

But read Acts again. “With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.”

He fell headlong.  That’s not the same as tossing a dead body in the field.  But I tell no lie if I say that a lot of Christians I know actually believe that the verses should be read in a way that can harmonise them both.  Obviously, we all desperately want to believe and are prepared to believe anything, however ludicrous.

Acts also makes it clear that Judas bought the field with the payment he received for his wickedness.  Matthew says Judas was remorseful and he threw the money at the feet of the chief priests who used the money to buy a field.

Harmonisers say the field must have been bought in Judas’ name and so when it says in Acts that Judas “bought a field with payment he received for his wickedness”, what is meant is the chief priests bought the field in Judas’ name.

Are you satisfied with such an answer?  It really depends on how desperate you are.

But it troubled me for a long time how St Luke could get it so wrong in Acts. Judas fell headlong in the Field of Blood and his body burst?  And all his intestines spilled out?

It wasn't until I read Bruce Metzger and FF Bruce on the canon that I discovered that there was an ancient Christian tradition about Judas. We know from Papias that the Christian community told a tale how Judas, because of his treachery against our Lord, swelled with each passing day until there came a time when he was so swollen and fat that he could not pass through a road that a carriage could go through. In those days, roads were narrow but Judas had become fatter than even a carriage.  One tradition says that he was knocked down by a carriage and he exploded and all his intestines spilled out. Another tradition says that he became so fat that his legs could not support him and he fell and his stomach burst and his intestines spilled out.

Now, this makes a lot of sense why Acts reported Judas' death in this manner.  In the days of the writing of the Gospels, the church was not so organised and communication was a problem. The writer of Matthew (who incidentally is anonymous) could not email the writer of Acts (purportedly St Luke himself) to tell him to get his story consistent with his.  But this error must have caused some of the ancient scribes a lot of headache as they sat in their cold monasteries transcribing the Bible because our record of manuscripts shows that some scribes left out the account of Judas' death in Acts altogether.  Why did they pick to axe Acts and not Matthew?  They revered the Bible and it's less sacrilegious to cut out one verse in Acts than to remove a large segment of Matthew's Gospel.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Mandarin is not my mother tongue


For those who are not familiar with the history of Chinese dialects, I should say from the outset that Mandarin (as it is historically known), or more accurately, the Beijing dialect, has never been a dialect of national importance or universal acceptance in China before the 20th century. Confucius was known to have spoken one of the Southern dialects which he himself referred to as “elegant language”.  Some have postulated that he probably spoke an ancient form of Cantonese but I have reason to believe that it was more probably the precursor of our present-day Hokkien.  True, he did not speak the coarse language of the Hokkien peasants but he spoke a refined form of Hokkien, akin to the Hokkien spoken today in the island of Penang.  Whether he spoke an ancient form of Hokkien or some other Southern dialect, history tells us that he certainly did not speak the Beijing dialect.

From ancient times to the 19th century, many other dialects held sway as the lingua franca of the land we know as China today. Of note is the Nanjing dialect which was the official and most popular dialect used in China right up to the early 20th century.  It was only in 1909 when the dying Manchu Dynasty which wasn’t even Chinese ruled that the Beijing dialect became the “guoyi” or national language of China. But there was not much effect in the ruling and the Beijing dialect continued to be sidelined by the literati and the movers and shakers of China. It was only after Communism, that noxious poison that destroyed the soul and dignity of the Chinese people, infected the whole of China that the Beijing dialect, under the edict of the Communist Party of China, became the “putonghua” or “common language” of China.

The more vociferous Chinese people in the Greater Diaspora were Communists in those days.  They too championed the dictates of the Communist Party of China and before long, the Beijing dialect became synonymous with the Chinese language.

The Chinese Government has since 1949 when Communism’s venomous tentacles gripped the whole of China systematically discouraged the use of non-Beijing dialects in China.  Of course we all know what it means when the Communists discourage something – they ban it with an iron fist. They have no qualms about sending in the tanks if that is necessary as the world has seen them do in the late 1980s to quash peaceful student protests in Tiananmen Square. The photograph above was taken in 2008.  A banner in front of a school asks readers to speak only the Beijing dialect. It is a “polite” or “civilized” language and one should use it if one were “sincere”.  The words are couched carefully so that it can be translated as simply, “Speak Mandarin. Use polite language to express sincerity”.  But anyone who has lived in China knows that the Communist Government has ensured that the people understand that this “polite language” or “civilized language” is none other than the “putonghua” or universal language or the people’s language which in Communist-speak means no other dialect but the Beijing dialect.  There’s no dispute here – any honest Chinese is bound to admit that this is so.

It is a fact of Chinese history even before the Boxer Rebellion that anyone who had the courage to enter a Chinese village in the South speaking the Beijing dialect would have been lynched and killed by angry mobs and accused of being a Northern infiltrator. How can I, whose ancestors hail from one of the Southern states of China, accept Mandarin as my mother tongue when I would have been killed for speaking it in my native village just barely 150 years ago? How can this foreign dialect be forced down my throat as my mother tongue when my mother does not speak a word of it and neither did her mother or her mother’s mother. You can trace that line all the way to Eve and not one of them spoke a word of the Beijing dialect.

Is there anything inherently attractive or superior about the Beijing dialect that can perhaps recommend it as a more suitable dialect to represent the entire Chinese people apart from the fact that the Communist politburo in 1949 all spoke it?  Let us look closely at the Beijing dialect and compare it in every linguistic detail with the Southern dialects and for simplicity, I will pick Hokkien, the most melodious and expressive Chinese dialect.

One of the most beautiful aspects of Hokkien that stands out when you set it next to Mandarin is the versatility of expression. One is able to express just about any emotion in Hokkien even when one is seized by a sudden surge of anger and one needs a loaded expletive to express oneself immediately. In this, Mandarin is sorely lacking. The closest one can come up with in Mandarin is “ta ma de” which literally means “his mother’s”.  But that hardly conveys the point, no, not by a long shot.  You can’t even make it more directly pertinent by changing it to “ni ma de” or “your mother’s”.  The Communist rigidity of the Mandarin dialect just does not permit this.  Hokkien, on the other hand, has an expletive for every occasion.  Again, this is beyond dispute and I don’t have to give illustrations of Hokkien’s superiority here.

Next, let us look at the comparative beauty of the two dialects.  Admittedly, the beauty of a particular language is very much subjective.  But linguists have other more objective ways of measuring and accurately calibrating a language. One of the easiest methods is to look at the consonants available in a language or dialect and to see how these consonants can be attached to the various parts of a word.  I won’t go into the technicalities but I’ll give illustrations which will explain my point more clearly.

All languages have a fixed number of consonants which differs from language to language. Roughly the number of consonants in the different languages do not differ significantly.  What is different is where these consonants appear. I’ll pick a simple example.  Let’s look at the letters “S” and “I”.  We have the consonant “S” in front and we place a vowel immediately following it, in this case, it’s an “I”. We’ll then see how many legitimate syllables can be made by adding a consonant at the end of the two letters.  We will have SICK (it’s the sound that matters and not the actual letters), SIT, SIN, SIM (which is necessary to construct words such as “simple”), and the list goes on.  That makes English highly versatile.  Hokkien is the same. You can have consonants of all kinds that end a syllable.  Mandarin, however, is different.  Apart from the consonants “n” and “ng”, there is ABSOLUTELY NO consonant that can appear at the end of a syllable.  For those of you who are familiar with Mandarin, go ahead and think about it and see if I’m right. And if you know Hokkien or one of the other Southern dialects, you can try this test on it and you will see that you can end the syllable with a great number of consonants. For example, in Mandarin, you can have a word such as "wan" or "fang" because they end in "n" and "ng".  You can't have words or syllables that end in "k" such as "pak" (found in Hokkien) or in "p" (as in the Hokkien word "sip") and other consonants.

That makes Mandarin a highly limited dialect.  There are only so few phonemes you can make with it.  Because of this shocking limitation, Mandarin has to go tonal in order to have enough phonemes for words.  For example, “tang” can be sugar or soup, depending on how you voice it.  True, Southern dialects too are tonal but because we have an adequate supply of consonants that can begin and end a syllable, our tones add more to the melody of our speech.  The tone is more like a flavour enhancer in Hokkien.

Why, you may legitimately ask, is Mandarin so crippled in its linguistic capabilities?  I have a theory but it is merely a personal theory and I must beg all Beijingites to treat this post as no more than some lighthearted chatter.  We all know that the Gobi desert sits just next to Beijing and for most months in a year, it spews relentlessly desert dust and sand into Beijing.  Just check with any hospital in Beijing and you are sure to hear stories of people choked by the dust during a sand storm.  Because of the poor quality of air in Beijing, it is hardly surprising that the Beijing dialect closely resembles what you will expect of a population that is usually gasping for air. Consonants at the end of a syllable will have to be dispensed with because they demand a large intake of air.  Why then do we find only “n” and “ng” endings in the Beijing dialect.  The answer is quite simple.  These are consonants that are nasal in nature and they act more as a means by which the speaker can clear his nasal passage.  They don’t add to the speaker’s burden as far as air intake goes.  The Beijing dialect or Mandarin is highly suitable for those who speak it in Beijing, given the harsh conditions there but to export it to the rest of China or worse, the rest of the world is madness.

I have nothing against the Beijing dialect.  I find the dialect quite beautiful.  But given the historical and environmental background in which the dialect comes about, it is not appropriate to insist that this dialect should be viewed as the mother tongue of everyone of Chinese descent.  It is as alien to me as Urdu is.  I’m sure Urdu is a beautiful language but it’s quite another thing to insist that I should speak it.

Let me conclude with an ancient Hokkien poem (the imagery is only comprehensible if you understand ancient Hokkien):

My eyes, hooded with grief, stared into space,
As I sat by the river where the willows weep,
I cast my mind to my good old days,
In Hui’an county with the gorges deep.

Where ang ku cakes were sold with Hokkien mee,
And pandas roamed as far as the eyes could see;
Oh, Min River, my dearest Min River,
To thee, my soul flies, from my heart to my liver.