Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best of the Blogroll: 2008

I like to close out the old year by celebrating the best post(s) of the year from various blogs on my blogroll. Best of the blogroll, 2008 edition: Happy New Year to all, and my thanks to everyone on my blogroll for keeping up the blogging. A few people are linked who don't actually appear on my blogroll quite yet, but I'm getting around to that.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Gospel of John and the New Prophesies

So far we have looked at the treatment of certain prophesies in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Next, we will review the same prophesies in the gospel of John. The gospel of John is widely regarded as the last of the four canonical gospels to be written. There is near-unanimous agreement that it was written after the fall of Jerusalem. In this respect John is unique: even the ancient traditional view proclaims a relatively late date for this gospel, holding that John was one of the last few surviving disciples of Jesus at the time it was written.

If the gospel of John were similar to Luke in the way that Luke is similar to Mark, the comparisons would be relatively simple. However, John is also markedly different from the other three gospels in its choice and treatment of material. Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a large amount of material on Jesus' sayings and actions; John records much unique material. Even when we see events recorded both in John and in the other gospels, we often see John with a fresh perspective on the same events. While we expect from reading Luke that the author used Mark's gospel as source material while writing, we have no such expectation from reading John. This makes comparisons between John and the other gospels more problematic; when we see differences in how prophesies are handled, we cannot be quite certain whether it was because of the later date or because of the author's independent voice and viewpoint on the life of Jesus. Still, thoroughness demands that we look at this gospel also, even if our conclusions may be more tentative.

Jesus' prophesy of Peter's denial
Simon Peter asked him, "Lord, where are you going?"

Jesus replied, "Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later."

Peter asked, "Lord, why can't I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you."

Then Jesus answered, "Will you truly lay down your life for me? I tell you the truth, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times." (John 13:36-38)
John records information on the prophesy of Peter's denial which is not found in the other gospels, but the prediction of a denial is recognizably the same. John also records the fulfillment:
As Simon Peter stood warming himself, he was asked, "You are not one of his disciples, are you?"

He denied it, saying, "I am not."

One of the high priest's servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, "Didn't I see you with him in the olive grove?" Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow. (John 18:25-27)
John's record of this event again has details not found in the other gospels, but is a recognizable fulfillment of the prophesy. John omits that at this point Peter remembered the prophesy and began to cry, while all of the other canonical gospels had mentioned that. It is difficult to say whether John considered that to be unnecessary to his point, or unkind to Peter to mention that -- perhaps some sort of respect for the dead not to rehash Peter's failings more than necessary. However, John's account as a whole is too independent of the others to put much weight on this slight a difference.

Jesus' prophesy of his execution and resurrection

The gospel of John records more instances of Jesus referring to his upcoming death and resurrection than Matthew, Mark, or Luke. The prophesies recorded by John are at times less clearly worded than those in the other gospels. Take, for instance, two passages typically understood as a prediction that his death would be by crucifixion:
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up. (John 3:14)
or again,
"But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die. (John 12:32-33)
There are a number of prophesies recorded (see also, for instance, John 2:19-22, 5:25, 8:28, 10:11-18, 12:23, 16:16-22), and John records that the disciples did not always understand what Jesus meant (16:17-18, see also 20:9 in a similar vein). The resurrection is prophesied along with the execution in some passages such as the good shepherd passage:
"I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me -- just as the Father knows me and I know the Father -- and I lay down my life for the sheep. ... The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life -- only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father." (John 10:14-15, 17-18)
As for the fulfillment of these prophesies, John records Jesus' death and resurrection at length and in detail, but again with an entirely different perspective than found in the other gospels. Here we see no "told you" or "remembrance" passages after the resurrection, simply the record of Jesus' death and resurrection. The closest we have to a remembrance passage is one recorded very early in John's narrative, before the record of the death and resurrection, back at John 2:22. Again it is difficult to attribute a specific cause to these particular differences between John and the others since the accounts are not that closely parallel.

Jesus' prophesy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple

If there were noticeable differences between John and the others on how these previous prophesies were handled, they are still relatively small differences compared to how John addresses the sack of Jerusalem and the fall of the Temple. Mark records this prophesy at length; it takes all of what we now have as chapter 13. In Matthew also, this is a particularly extensive prophesy that takes all of what we now have as chapter 24. In Luke, this prophesy takes the majority of our chapter 21. What does John have to say about Jesus' prophesy of these events? John likewise places the prophesy very close to the cleansing of the Temple and the leaders asking what authority Jesus had to do such a thing:
Then the Jews demanded of him, "What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?"

Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."

The Jews replied, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?" But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said." (John 2:18-22)
That is all John says on the topic. After the climactic build-ups of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we find that John barely gives it a mention.

John records the cleansing of the temple at the beginning of his gospel, while the others have it towards the end as part of the confrontations leading up to Jesus' arrest and execution. The author's commentary also relates this material to Jesus' arrest and execution.

One striking difference in the handling of this particular prophesy is that the destruction of the temple is no longer seen as significant in its own right; it is a relatively minor detail compared to Jesus' own death and resurrection. In John, there is no indication from the text that the author sees the prophesy as serving a prophetic function in declaring what is to come. There is also no indication from the text that the author sees the prophesy as serving to validate Jesus' foreknowledge of the future, as might be the case with the prediction of Peter's denial. In fact, it is not certain that the author sees Jesus as referring primarily to the actual Jerusalem temple building, though his hearers clearly understand it that way; there is some room for dispute about how much we can consider this to be a prediction of the temple's destruction. The purpose it serves in the narrative is less about the temple and more about Jesus: the readers are to understand that, in light of Jesus' death and resurrection, the temple itself has become irrelevant. The implication is that there is no further need for a special place to offer sacrifices or a particular building to house God's presence or a special place to direct prayers after Jesus' death and resurrection; the implications the author draws are less historical than they are theological.

The article which spurred me to undertake a more thorough review of prophesy was one which held close to scholarly conventions: that the prophesy of the destruction of Jerusalem would not be recorded in such detail and at such length as found in Mark and the others unless the authors were certain of the fulfillment: i.e., if the authors recorded the prophesy, the fulfillment must have been past. Here, however, we find that the only gospel for which we are certain of a post-destruction dating finds the prophesy of destruction nearly irrelevant, and of current significance only indirectly. It is possible that the destruction of the temple was too much "yesterday's news" to be of interest at the date this gospel was written. Then again, it is possible that the original readers of this gospel -- a more Gentile audience than the others -- may have been less interested in the fate of Jerusalem and its temple.

The Gospel of John and the future from a writer's-eye view

Given that John has no prophesy of Jerusalem's destruction and a bare half-mention of the prophesy of the destruction of the temple, is the Gospel of John completely devoid of any of the forward-looking urgency of the other gospels? No, not at all; but now the forward-looking open element of the narrative has been transferred off of the destruction of Jerusalem.
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is going to betray you?") When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?"

Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?" (John 21:20-23)
The open element at the end of the narrative here is not the destruction of the temple or the sack of Jerusalem. It is the question whether the author, believed to be one of the younger disciples, would live to see Jesus return. John's approach of leaving the future open, along with his marked lack of interest in the sack of Jerusalem now that it was past, strengthens the possibility that the other gospel writers may have emphasized the destruction of Jerusalem not because it was past, but because it was future. The unfulfilled prophesy left an urgency and an anticipation in the reader. It gave the gospels an open edge with an encompassing sense of uniting the past, present, and future in a great narrative centered on Jesus.

To what extent were the authors of the gospel of John familiar with the other gospels? To what extent did they see the function of the destruction prophesies there as a part of the forward-leaning vividness of those texts? To what extent did the fall of Jerusalem create a need for them to discuss a different topic to fulfill that same function and show that same forward-leaning historical scope that they thought was fitting? Or was it just that the authors had such an independent perspective on Jesus that these questions do not lead where they would otherwise seem to lead?

I began this series with a thought to review new prophesies and how they were handled by the gospel authors. I wanted to size up how likely it was that the destruction of Jerusalem would be handled the way it was if it were already in the past when Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written. To this end, I compared that prophesy with two other prophesies definitely known to be fulfilled at the time the gospels were written. As much as the passages examined so far are suggestive, and the different treatments given over time may also be suggestive, they are not a complete review of the material. To that end, I intend to extend this series just slightly longer to do a comprehensive review of new prophesies -- not just the ones that had been selected for a quick "compare and contrast" function, but all the new prophesies in the gospel texts along with how they are handled by the gospel authors. Rather than the slow-moving text-and-commentary on each prophesy as done with the review of just a few prophesies, the comprehensive review will show tables summing up the findings. Once we have the results of the more comprehensive review, we will see what patterns emerge and determine whether we are in a position to suggest dates for the gospels based on their handling of prophesies, and especially dates relative to the fall of Jerusalem.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The incarnation: Making it meaningful to be human

Of all the things God has done for us, few are as earth-shattering as taking on human flesh and being born as Jesus of Nazareth. Everyone now who shares that human flesh -- you and me and the other 6 billion of us -- has had our worth affirmed by God himself. We share this mortal flesh we have with no less than the immortal God.

We may look at human heroes and know that their great achievements and courage uplift us all. We know that being human is a remarkable thing. But then they died. Every one of them. Meaninglessness overtook them.

But to know that God himself took this same flesh, from that event it follows that simply being human touches the divine, because God lived among us as one of us. From God's birth as a human, it follows that the human life has dignity and is worth living. The small and the humble things of this world now have value.

Who would have the heart or the courage to dare to love, if humanity had no dignity? Who could look their loved ones in the eye and smile, if the grave was the end of it all, and all that passed until then was meaningless?

When God became man, he did more than give us our hope back, more than restore our dignity. He gave us this world back as a thing that could hold the divine.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

'Let the reader understand' - the aside to the reader in Matthew and Mark

This post focuses on a particular detail of Jesus' prophesies of the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple as recorded by Mark and Matthew: the aside to the readers found in those gospels. First, then, the relevant texts from those gospels:
When you see 'the abomination that causes desolation' standing where it does not belong -- let the reader understand -- then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. (Mark 13:14-16)

So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel -- let the reader understand -- then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. (Matthew 24:15-18)
Note that the passages from Mark and Matthew are so close that I am not aware of anyone arguing for their independence. Mark alludes to a previous prophesy; Matthew places it in the book of Daniel. For reference, here is the first of two passages from Daniel about the 'abomination':
His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation. (Daniel 11:31, emphasis added; see also Daniel 12:11 for the second such prophesy of Daniel.)
Setting aside Daniel for the moment and looking at the prophesy of Jesus as recorded by Matthew and Mark, the question is: why is there a note 'let the reader understand' at that point in the narrative of a prophesy? Has the prophesy already been fulfilled at the time of writing?

I think that is not the most natural interpretation of the phrase 'let the reader understand'. If the author wanted to call the reader's attention to the fulfillment of the prophesy, 'let the reader remember' might have been more suitable; it would be closer to the approaches to highlighting fulfilled prophesies that we have seen in other passages of Matthew and Mark. And why, if it were a recollection formula, would it be placed particularly next to the allusion to the 'abomination that causes desolation'? Why not call attention to something that would have been a more public and a more visible remembrance, such as the sack of Jerusalem or the destruction of the Temple? Why is 'let the reader understand' placed only next to an allusion that might be difficult for the reader to understand?

It seems more natural to me that 'let the reader understand' means that the reader should understand the allusion to Daniel (possibly also to Maccabees; see the endnote to this post). The rest of the prophesy is fairly plain: stones being knocked down, buildings in ruins, armies around the city, people fleeing for the mountains. These things need no special information to understand. However, "the abomination that causes desolation" does need special information to understand. It is an allusion to another prophesy, one probably familiar to the more learned readers of Matthew and Mark, the two gospels which are most highly saturated with Jewish references. If the phrase 'let the reader understand' is meant to give a slight jog to the reader's memory with regards to the allusion to the prophet Daniel, that would explain the phrase's placement next to the only obscure phrasing in the prophesy, and why the call was to let the reader 'understand' the abomination rather than 'remember' it. It would also make more sense of why the text is closely followed by a call to run for the hills when the event comes.

It might be in order to take a quick look at Luke also:
When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those that are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. (Luke 21:20-21)
Luke does not have the aside to the reader 'let the reader understand' -- neither does he have a reference to the abomination that causes desolation. Then again, it's possible that Luke might have removed the aside to the reader for other reasons than not mentioning the abomination. He might have thought it was bad form to insert a direct comment to the reader in the middle of that passage, and likely other explanations could be imagined. At any rate, Luke's treatment is completely consistent with the view that 'let the reader understand' had referred to the allusion all along. Those who believe 'let the reader understand' had referred to something besides the allusion might need an explanation for why Luke dropped 'let the reader understand' together with the allusion.

The earlier readers might also have understood the 'abomination' in Maccabees or in the historical recollection of what the 'abomination' had meant at the time of the Maccabees:
Now the fifteenth day of the month Casleu [Kislev], in the hundred forty and fifth year, they set up the abomination of desolation upon the altar, and builded idol altars throughout the cities of Juda on every side ... (1 Maccabees 1:54, 1611 AV)
The relevance to Matthew and Mark is indirect: the book of Maccabees shows the idol in the holy place as the abomination, which the readers of Matthew and Mark may have understood. Matthew and Mark record Jesus predicting a second fulfillment as the sacrifices are once again abolished.

One more post is intended in this series: the treatment of 'new prophesies' in the gospel of John.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Writings of Luke and the New Prophesies

This is the third post in a series reviewing various New Testament writings and particularly how they handle "new prophesies" -- prophesies of the future made during the New Testament era, with particular emphasis on how new prophesies were handled by the authors who wrote the canonical gospels.

In the Gospel of Luke, we can again trace the same three prophesies as in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark: Jesus' prophesy of Peter's denial, Jesus' prophesy of his execution and resurrection, and Jesus' prophesy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. However, some of the more interesting material on Luke's handling of the new prophesies is seen in the book of Acts. The fact that this author wrote more than one surviving work covering similar types of material provides a unique perspective into the author's purpose and approach in handling prophesies.

Jesus' prophesy of Peter's denial
Readers who have followed this series are, by now, familiar with the general approach to recording Peter's denial in Matthew and Mark. Luke, like Matthew and Mark, records a prophesy of Peter's denial (Luke 22:34) and records the fulfillment of that prophesy as Peter denies knowing Jesus (Luke 22:60-62). The record of the prophesy's fulfillment again contains explicit mention that the prophesy was remembered when it was fulfilled. Here Luke stays close to the material and approach already known from earlier sources such as Mark.

Jesus' prophesy of his execution and resurrection
In Luke's handling of the prophesies of Jesus' death and resurrection, we find one such prophesy at Luke 9:22 just before the transfiguration, as in Matthew and Mark. Luke does not repeat the prophesy as Jesus and his disciples come down the mountain, as Matthew and Mark do. Luke records Jesus repeating the prophesy at 18:31-33, and here he records the disciples' incomprehension, which Mark had mentioned in a somewhat different form as the disciples came down from the mountain after the transfiguration.

When recording the fulfillment of these prophesies, Luke records details not found in Matthew or Mark. He also places repeated emphasis on the remembrance of the prophesy:

In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee, 'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'" Then they remembered his words. (Luke 24:5-8, emphasis added)
And again,
He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." (Luke 24:44, emphasis added)
Particularly in the record of the fulfillment of the resurrection, we see Luke contributing information not known from Mark or Matthew, and showing some independence from both Mark and Matthew.

Jesus' prophesy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple
The prophesy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple was seen as a fairly short passage in Mark, then as an extended section in Matthew. Luke also has an extended section on the prophesy of the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (Luke 21). There is another possible prophetic allusion to the fall of Jerusalem in Luke 23:28-31, though that is not so clearly worded as to be classified beyond dispute as a prophesy of Jerusalem's destruction.

"No one knows the day or the hour" -- this hesitancy formula was seen once in Mark shortly following the prophesy of Jerusalem's fall. As we saw, it was repeatedly emphasized in Matthew, both following the prophesy of Jerusalem's fall and also in passages more closely associated with Jesus' return from a long absence to pronounce judgment. Here in Luke, we see a form of the "no one knows" passage in a parable of the Last Judgment (Luke 12:46; see Matthew 24:50, possibly Mark 13:35). In Luke, this is far removed from the prophesy of the destruction of Jerusalem. Did Luke place it there because he knew that Jerusalem had now fallen, or did he place it there because even in Mark the "no one knows" motif is contextualized in the "return from an absence", which is not necessarily the fall of Jerusalem?

Again, Luke has no mention of the fulfillment of this prophesy. Why not? The author has made a point of recording the fulfillment of prophesies; it is part of his intended material. Would Luke omit mentioning the fulfillment of a prophesy if it had already been fulfilled? If so, why mention the prophesy at all? Had the sack of Jerusalem and the fall of the Temple simply not happened yet, providing a fairly straightforward reason why it was not mentioned? Or was it merely outside the scope of his narrative, outside the scope of his intended material, and was not mentioned for that reason? Would a concern for limiting and focusing the scope of his narrative outweigh his concern to mention the fulfillment of prophesies? To consider this, we are fortunate to have more than one document written by Luke. The other document, the book of Acts, sheds light on that question.

From Luke to Acts
In the gospel of Luke, the author had developed what he intended as a historical narrative of what could be known with certainty about Jesus of Nazareth. In the book of Acts, the author seems to intend a historical narrative of the growth of the religious movement viewed as a continuation of the narrative about Jesus, now focusing on those who proclaimed the message about him, the message that Luke had set out to document in his gospel.

Among these early followers of Jesus, some were reckoned as prophets. When we consider how Luke handled prophesies, we see additional examples of prophesy that have a bearing on our question. We find that we do have an example of a prophesy that was made in which the details of the fulfillment were not in the scope of his writing. Given the religious content of his writing and the religious interest of his readers, how would Luke have handled a prophesy with a fulfillment outside his intended narrative?

Acts: Agabus' prophesy of a famine
Agabus receives only two brief mentions in the Bible, both of them in the book of Acts. Luke introduces Agabus as a prophet:
During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:27-30, emphasis added)
Here we have Luke recording a prophesy of a famine, but the famine itself is not within the intended scope of his writing. Still, we see Luke mention the fulfillment of the prophesy. Luke may have recorded the fulfillment because he had recorded the prophesy and now wanted to show that his record was reliable, or that Agabus was a reliable source, or that the Christian movement had special gifts of the knowledge of God. Luke may have also recorded the fulfillment because of the involvement of later Christians during the time when the prophesy was fulfilled (see vv. 29-30), though it would hardly be necessary to mention the prophesy if this were the whole of the reason. Compared with other prophesy/fulfillment pairs we have seen in Luke's writings, there is no "remembrance" or "told you so" clause; then again, the prophesy and its fulfillment are recorded back-to-back, with no intervening material. Here we see that Luke records the fulfillment of a prophesy even when the details of the fulfillment are outside his area of direct interest. The prophesy itself as a prophesy seems to be of interest to Luke so that he records the fulfillment, even though there is not much interest in recording the famine as such.

Acts: Agabus' prophesy of Paul's arrest
For thoroughness' sake, we will also review the other prophesy which Luke records from Agabus.
After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul's belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, "The Holy Spirit says, 'In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.'" (Acts 21:10-11)
In this case, the fulfillment of the prophesy -- Paul's arrest -- is of direct interest to Luke, and he records the fulfillment in some detail later in the same chapter.

While trying to determine whether the gospel of Luke was written before or after the fall of Jerusalem, the internal evidence within the gospel of Luke was much the same as that from the gospel of Matthew. That is, the silence about the destruction of Jerusalem was striking given the author's pattern of pointing out the fulfillment of prophesy, but this break in pattern may not be persuasive in that we can easily imagine other reasons for this break in pattern, particularly that it may have been outside the scope of his narrative, and given that Luke -- in distinction to Mark or Matthew -- lacks the "no one knows" disclaimer in any text associated with the fall of Jerusalem. The lack of the "no one knows" disclaimer is in itself a flag. But a flag of what? A flag that Luke considered the "no one knows" material to have been misplaced, in that he records it elsewhere? A flag that Luke knew a version of Mark with a different version of the "no one knows" formula, as there are textual variants there? Or a flag that Luke knew when Jerusalem fell when he wrote the his gospel, but chose not to mention the prophesy's fulfillment? From the gospel of Luke alone, the evidence is ambiguous, much as it was with Matthew.

It is the book of Acts which provides a way to evaluate how likely Luke would have been to keep silence about a fulfilled prophesy that happened to be outside the scope of his main narrative. We see in Luke's handling of the prophesy of the famine: if Luke records a prophesy, Luke at least works in a mention of its fulfillment if he is aware of it, even if the mention is pointedly brief so as not to break up the flow of the narrative. Either we must conclude that Luke was very careless in his handling of prophesy and fulfillment, or that he had more interest in Agabus' reputation than Jesus' reputation, or that Luke did not know of the fall of Jerusalem when he wrote the gospel of Luke. Based on the texts we have, the first two seem implausible to me, and the third option seems the most plausible. Bear in mind that the main reason for dating the synoptic gospels later than the fall of Jerusalem has been their inclusion of the prophesy of Jerusalem's destruction. But in one gospel after another we have seen that this is the only new prophesy whose fulfillment is not recorded. In Matthew and Mark, this prophesy is accompanied by a hesitancy formula that is in sharp contrast to the "remembrance" and "told you so" formulas seen for the prophesies that were known to have been fulfilled. In Luke, this prophesy is not granted a passing mention of fulfillment such as Luke grants to Agabus and his famine.

The argument for a late date based on the existence of these prophesies is incomplete; it neglects to study how the authors handle the fulfillment of prophesy and the evidence that they are interested to record such a fulfillment whenever it is known. Based on the internal evidence of how the synoptic gospels handle the fulfillment of the recorded prophesies, it seems most likely to me that the three synoptic gospels were written before the fall of Jerusalem.

I hope I haven't tired everyone on the subject yet, but I still have two more posts intended in this series: the 'let the reader understand' comments during the prophesy of the destruction, and the handling of prophesy in the gospel of John.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Call for Nominations: Efforts in Christian reconciliation

For the upcoming Christian Reconciliation Carnival #14, I would like to solicit nominations of people who are working towards Christian reconciliation. In the upcoming Carnival, I will pass along a round-up of these nominations in order to give recognition and encouragement to those Christians working towards reconciliation. (Please note that a humble carnival organizer of a fairly disorganized carnival would *not* pass muster for a nomination. ;) )

I'd like to hear of as many people as you can call to mind who are out there doing the groundwork in Christian reconciliation. I would like to recognize efforts of people doing the following specific types of work:
  • Peacemakers: Those working towards a cease-fire in the ongoing flame-wars and those working to restore good will and open communications.
  • Hospitality: Those providing forums and creating environments of Christian fellowship across our divides
  • Building bridges: Those working across group lines on efforts of understanding each other and clarifying their differences
  • Rubbish removal: Those working within their own groups to remove logs from their own eyes.

Please note that, while you are welcome to nominate bloggers for their efforts, you are also welcome to consider the efforts of public figures or people you know in your own corner of the world.

If you would like to nominate someone for recognition, please do one of the following:
  1. Leave a comment on this post; or
  2. Write a post on your blog, and email a link; or
  3. email a nomination.
Please send any nominations before New Year's Eve. (Go ahead and send them this week. Otherwise it will slip off of the radar.) God willing, I'll ring in the New Year by recognizing the best reconciliation efforts of 2008. I have no intention of "picking a winner"; I intend to simply recognize the efforts of all those nominated (though I reserve the right to skip a nomination if it is obviously inappropriate).

Let me know who is doing efforts that you would like to recognize; please send in your nominations while the thoughts are fresh in your mind.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Gospel of Matthew and the New Prophesies

In this post, I am continuing a review of various New Testament writings and particularly how they handle "new prophesies" -- prophesies of the future made during the New Testament era, and particularly how they are handled by the authors who wrote the canonical gospels.

In the Gospel of Matthew, I trace the same three prophesies as in the Gospel of Mark: Jesus' prophesy of Peter's denial, Jesus' prophesy of his execution and resurrection, and Jesus' prophesy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.

Jesus' prophesy of Peter's denial

The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus' prophesy in words that are very close to those used in the Gospel of Mark:
"I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "this very tonight, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times." (Matthew 26:34)
As in Mark, the fulfillment is recorded later in the same chapter, and ends with the following:
Then he [Peter] began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, "I don't know the man!"

Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: "Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times." And he went outside and wept bitterly. (Matthew 26:74-75, emphasis added)
As in Mark, the author recorded both the prophesy and the fulfillment, and again we have the remembrance noted in the fulfillment text. It bears noticing that the wording of Matthew is very close to that of Mark; I think few people would conclude that these accounts are wholly independent of each other.

Jesus' prophesy of his execution and resurrection

The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus predicting his own death and resurrection on several occasions, some of them just the same as seen in Mark. Matthew 16:21 is parallel to Mark 8:31. Matthew 17:9 is parallel to Mark 9:9, though here we meet one of the instances where Mark has more information than Matthew, as Matthew has no note of the disciples' incomprehension of the prophesy as mentioned at that point by Mark. The prediction at Matthew 20:18-19 parallels Mark 10:33-34.

With this prophesy, Matthew provides more follow-up than Mark. They do both have the "told you so" scene with the messenger at the empty tomb (Matthew 28:5-7), with some slight differences but still recognizably the same material as relayed in Mark 16:6-7.
The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here, he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you." (Matthew 28:5-7, emphasis added)
Here Matthew has the "told you so" about the prophesy placed closer to the mention of the prophesy's fulfillment rather than with the "go to Galilee" instructions, which are now followed with a separate "told you" about these instructions, here simply meaning that the messenger had relayed his message.

Matthew also includes another recollection of the prophesy not seen in Mark:
The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate, "Sir," they said, "we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, 'After three days I will rise again.' So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first." (Matthew 27:62-64, emphasis added)
Here again we see that the author recorded both the prophesy and the fulfillment. Matthew spends more time on recollecting the prophesy than Mark, with both the "told you so" from the messenger at the tomb and the "we remember" from the chief priests which included a recap of the prophesy.

Again, there is no doubt that with Matthew, as with Mark, the author's agenda included making sure the readers knew that the prophesy had been made and was fulfilled. Here with this prophesy we see Matthew working beyond the material paralleled in Mark, with Matthew recording more material on the recollection of the prophesy independent of that found in Mark.

Jesus' prophesy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple

Finally, we come to Matthew's record of Jesus' prophesy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. As with Mark, the prophesy is made at some length; see Matthew 24 and Mark 13. There are some interesting points of difference with Mark, but first a few points of similarity:
  1. Again, we do not have a "fulfillment" record.
  2. Again, we have a "hesitancy" clause: "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Matthew 24:36; compare to Mark 13:32)
  3. We have an extended admonition to "keep watch" for these events (24:42-25:13).
The hesitancy clause in Matthew is handled differently than in Mark. While Mark simply records it, in Matthew we have varying repetitions of it. In Matthew 24:36 we have the closest parallel to Mark: the mention that no one knows the day or hour, not the angels nor the Son but only the Father follows closely on the words that the prophesies previously mentioned would occur in the days of the generation that heard them made. (A footnote indicates some manuscripts have omitted 'nor the Son', which might be an interesting separate study but is beyond the level of detail intended here in this survey of the material.) Matthew 24:42 has a variation in which what is unknown is not in a text associated with the destruction of the Temple; it is the hour of the Lord's arrival. Matthew 24:44 again associates the unexpected hour with the arrival of the Son of Man. In case the point isn't driven home quite yet, Matthew 24:50 places the unexpected day and hour with the return of 'the master' from a long journey, as Matthew 25:30 places the unexpected day and hour with the arrival of 'the bridegroom'. These last two returns from a journey are the first two of what could be called 'parables of a long absence', in which there are three illustrations of problems caused by a long delay of an expected return (see the emphasis of the delay in Matthew 24:48, 25:5, 25:19). After these three parables of the long absence, Matthew continues to record the famous 'last judgment' scene in the New Testament with the sheep and the goats.

Here a comparison to Mark is in order: Mark does contain a small sampling of the same material. In Mark's section urging people to keep watch, we also find a condensed, one-verse version of one of these parables of absence (see Mark 13:34). In the comments on this parable also, the unknown day or hour is that when the owner of the house returns (Mark 13:35). There is possible precedent in Mark for the unknown day or hour referring to the return rather than the sack of Jerusalem, though it is not clearly differentiated in the text.

Questions then arise about the reasons for the differences between Mark and Matthew's treatment of the material. Most scholars work on the assumption that Matthew copied Mark, and if we work with that assumption then I think the most obvious agenda of Matthew compared to Mark must have been this: to provide additional material. Matthew is roughly twice the length of Mark. There are times when a sentence or two from Mark is paralleled by an entire chapter or series of chapters in Matthew. Mark has only a few scattered sayings from the Sermon on the Mount (see, for example, Mark 4:21-25), a sermon to which Matthew devotes three chapters (Matthew 5-7), adding much material not known from Mark. A mere two verses in Mark (12:28-29) likewise become an entire chapter in Matthew (Matthew 23), again with much additional material.

So here, in our current discussion, we see six verses from Mark (13:32-37) occupying the same narrative place as a chapter and a half in Matthew. Did Matthew add the additional material simply because Mark did not record very much of what Jesus said? Was there any reason for their selection other than seeing the short attention given in Mark and deciding to give a fuller treatment, as with the Sermon on the Mount? Or did Matthew record these particular things because he saw a need to emphasize that the sack of Jerusalem and the end of the world were separated by a long absence, that the unknown day and hour was the day of judgment? Mark saw no need to emphasize a long absence. Did Matthew see such a need, or did he simply think that he should place those three additional parables of Jesus -- along with the depiction of the Last Judgment -- at the proper place?


The questions raised by the different treatment of the "no one knows" passages between Matthew and Mark are not the type of questions that can be answered from the texts of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark alone. It bears mentioning that, once again, the prophesies which we know with certainty were fulfilled before the text was written are pointed out as fulfilled by the author. It bears notice that we can demonstrate that the author of Matthew also has an agenda of making sure that fulfilled prophesies are noted and remembered. Again, it would be odd for the author to omit mentioning the fulfillment of the prophesy, given that he has demonstrated a pattern of highlighting the fulfillment of prophesy. His borrowings (we assume) from Mark are not quite enough to explain this, as Matthew has a track record of independently adding material.

However, we are not quite at a loss about the date of Matthew; many consider it probable enough that Luke was either written about the same time as Matthew or that Luke may have been written a little bit later. The material written by Luke has some unique features which are worth noting in discussing the dates of the various New Testament writings.

Next: an analysis of how Luke handles the "new prophesies" made in the New Testament era.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Gospel of Mark and the new prophesies

I recently read a work that involved establishing dates for the gospels of the New Testament. The earliest was assumed to be Mark as per current consensus and was dated after the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) based on one criterion alone: that the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple simply must have already happened in order for Mark to have recorded as a fact that Jesus prophesied their occurrence.

In order to test the logic of this hypothesis, I have asked one question in reviewing the various New Testament texts, particularly texts by authors who wrote gospels: How did they treat prophesies made in the New Testament era? I want to be clear that I am not here looking at the separate question of how they treated prophesies made in ancient times by the Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah, as interesting as that may be. Instead, the question I am pursuing is this: how did they approach new prophesies made either by Jesus or by Christians who were said to be prophesying, as those were prophesies whose fulfillment (or not) might have an effect on how people perceived Jesus and the Christian faith. I am aware that there are those who hypothesize that there were no prophesies at all, but that they were retroactively inserted into the record of Jesus' life by those who wanted to bolster his reputation. That hypothesis is not being directly tested here; this line of inquiry may be of interest regardless of whether someone takes the prophesies as authentic sayings of Jesus. The question under consideration is not directly whether Jesus made the predictions, but rather how the authors handled the issue of prophesy and fulfillment when the prophesy was made by Jesus or his followers.

In the Gospel of Mark, I have traced three such prophesies: Jesus' prophesy of Peter's denial, Jesus' prophesy of his execution and resurrection, and Jesus' prophesy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. In each case I will review not only the prophesy, but whether the fulfillment is recorded and whether the fulfillment draws the reader's attention to the original prophesy. If the author repeatedly draws attention to a prophesy/fulfillment cycle, we can reasonably conclude that this is part of the author's purpose in writing and that, given another opportunity to do the same, the author would again call attention to another fulfilled prophesy.

Jesus' prophesy of Peter's denial

The first prophesy I would like to consider is Jesus' prediction of Peter's denial. The Gospel of Mark records it as follows:
"I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "today -- yes, tonight -- before the rooster crows (twice) you yourself will disown me three times." (Mark 14:30)
The fulfillment is recorded later in the same chapter, and ends with the following:
He [Peter] began to call down curses on himself, and he swore to them, "I don't know this man you're talking about."

Immediately the rooster crowed (the second time). Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: "Before the rooster crows (twice) you will disown me three times." And he broke down and wept. (Mark 14:71-72, emphasis added)
In this prophesy/fulfillment pair, we see that the author recorded both the prophesy and the fulfillment. During the fulfillment portion, the author calls attention to the fact that a prophesy has been fulfilled. Here we have a "remembrance" noted in the fulfillment text, underscoring for the reader that the prophesy was now being fulfilled.

Jesus' prophesy of his execution and resurrection

The Gospel of Mark records Jesus predicting his own death and resurrection on several occasions. The first instance of prediction at Mark 8:31 could have been an embarrassment for the early church in that immediately afterwards it shows Peter rebuking Jesus, drawing Jesus' famous reply to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan." (8:33). The second instance of prediction at Mark 9:9-10 notes the disciples' incomprehension of the prophesy (9:9-10) as they try to figure out what "rising from the dead" might mean. The third prediction at Mark 10:33-34 records Jesus openly discussing his upcoming death and resurrection.

Again the author records the fulfillment as the women find the tomb open and a messenger waiting for them:
"Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell the disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'" (Mark 16:6-7, emphasis added)
Here again we see that the author recorded both the prophesy and the fulfillment. During the fulfillment portion, the author again calls attention to the fact that a prophesy has been fulfilled. Here we have a "told you so" noted in the fulfillment text. The author has now established a pattern of recording both the prophesy and the fulfillment. The author has also, at each fulfillment, drawn attention to the original prophesy with either a "remembrance" or a "told you so".

Jesus' prophesy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple

Next we come to Jesus' prophesy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. It is based on this prophesy that the date of the Gospel of Mark and all the other gospels has been calculated as after the year 70 A.D. since it certainly must have been fulfilled (the argument goes) in order for the author to have recorded it. What does the author record, and is it consistent with the way the author has handled other prophesies which have been fulfilled?

The prophesy is made at some length in Mark 13. In this case, while we do have a prophesy, there are three points of interest here:
  1. We do not have a "fulfillment" record.
  2. We have a "hesitancy" clause: "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (13:32)
  3. We have an extended admonition to "keep watch" for these events (13:33-36).
The handling of this prophesy is observably different from the others.


As the Gospel of Mark records Jesus' prophesies of Peter's denial and of his own death and resurrection, we see a pattern emerge. In both the case of Peter's denial and of Jesus' death and resurrection, there is a consensus that the date in which the fulfillment was believed to have occurred had already taken place before the gospel was written. For these prophesies whose fulfillment is known to be already past when the gospel was written, the author records both the prophesy and its fulfillment. Beyond simply recording the fulfillment, the author also calls attention to the fulfilled status of the prophesy by recording either a remembrance formula or a told-you-so formula. In sharp contrast, the prophesy of the sack of Jerusalem and of the destruction of the Temple is couched in uncertainty. No fulfillment is mentioned, contrary to the pattern seen in other prophesies considered to have been fulfilled. Jesus' hesitancy about the timing of the fulfillment is recorded, which would have been completely unnecessary if the prophesy were considered already fulfilled at the time of writing. Finally, the readers are urged to watch as if for a still-future event, an urging which did not occur with the prophesies already considered to be fulfilled.

Based on how the author handles the different prophesies, it seems more consistent with the text and the author's established patterns to conclude that the Gospel of Mark was written before the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.

Next: the same type of analysis for the Gospel of Matthew, focusing mainly on the differences between Matthew and Mark on these points.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Isaiah 40: God's arrival in Jerusalem

Announce to the cities of Judah: Behold your God! (Isaiah 40:9)
There is a section of Isaiah that is one of the highlights of all the Old Testament: a prophecy that describes God himself coming into the world. The Jewish Publication Society has study notes for Isaiah 40:9 and following, beginning with the plain though amazing comment on the accompanying verses: "God's arrival in Jerusalem."

God's arrival in Jerusalem is the climax; the earlier verses of the chapter had seen a build-up to this moment. Earlier verses described the herald bringing "good tidings to Zion". Before that, it was proclaimed that all flesh would see the glory of the LORD. And the beginning of the announcement of God's visit to the world is in these familiar words:
A voice of one calling, "In the desert, prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, and every mountain and hill made low." (Isaiah 40:3-4).
Here, at the beginning of a prophecy of God's arrival in the world, we find a quote that is familiar from all four of the canonical gospels. Mark chooses this quote to be among the opening words of his gospel:
"a voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him." (Mark 1:3)
By the accounts we have, Mark was Jewish. When Mark identified John the Baptist with Isaiah's "voice calling in the desert", Mark names John as that herald from Isaiah 40 who was announcing the coming of the LORD. The word "Lord" in Greek may be ambiguous; the word "LORD" in the original of the text being quoted was not ambiguous. It was the holy name of God, not to be casually pronounced, a name reserved for God. When Mark identified "the voice calling in the desert" as John the Baptist, Mark thereby implies that the one John announces is the long-awaited LORD, as God whose arrival was prophesied in that passage of Isaiah which he cited. Mark's interest in John the Baptist was only passing; as author of a book about the life of Jesus, his interest was less in how his readers understood John the Baptist, and more in how they understood Jesus.

Many scholars hold Mark to be the earliest of the gospels written. If that is the case, then we have reason to think that the earliest Christians -- and Jewish Christians at that -- may have believed Jesus of Nazareth to be the LORD prophesied by Isaiah, the LORD whose arrival in Jerusalem was expected.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Did Luke and Mark meet in person?

Those interested in the Synoptic Puzzle have looked closely at any number of clues as to the relationships between the gospels. Luke is widely assumed to have had a copy of Mark's gospel, and Luke himself says plainly that he started with a knowledge of previous sources (Luke 1:1-2).

Luke and Mark together?
Paul's second letter to Timothy, probably written around 66-67 A.D., contains an intriguing passage for those interested in the Synoptic Puzzle. Paul writes to Timothy:
Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. I sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments. (2 Tim 4:11-13)
So here we have Mark, author of one of the gospels, invited to go see Paul who is accompanied by Luke, author of another of the gospels. Paul sent for some materials from what may have been his personal library, said materials to arrive with Timothy and Mark when they came to see Paul and Luke. Now there is a meeting I'd like to have attended. What were on the scrolls and especially the parchments? Aside from Paul's documents, what about everyone else's? Had Mark started writing his gospel yet? Had Luke started taking notes for his gospel yet?

Another of Paul's letters, the letter to Philemon, seems to have been written some years before and speaks of both Mark and Luke being with him:
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow-workers. (Philemon vv 23-24, emphasis added)
Based on this, it seems that Mark and Luke had already met more than briefly, and were both staying in the same city keeping the same companions at that time. Mark and Luke both appear together again in the "greetings" list of Colossians, written about the same time as Philemon (see Colossians 4:10, 4:14).

Luke and Paul
There are other points of interest as well. 2 Timothy was written near the end of Paul's life, as he is in a dungeon in Rome for his final imprisonment before his execution. By this time, Paul has long been in the habit of using his prison time to write; what has his companion Luke been doing? On that same subject, note Luke's comments on a previous trip Paul made to Rome to stand trial:
When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him. (Acts 28:16).

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 28:30-31, these words forming the close of the book of Acts)
Since the book of Acts followed Paul for so long but does not mention Paul's final imprisonment, is it possible that Luke had finished the book of Acts before that final imprisonment occurred? Had Luke used his spare time during Paul's previous imprisonment to work on his books? Or did Luke not mention Paul's final imprisonment because it was still in progress as he concluded the book of Acts?

These are intriguing possibilities suggested by the texts, but by no means proven by them.

Mark and Peter
In Peter's first letter, we see Mark listed among his companions:
She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark. (1 Peter 5:13)
It's traditional to note at this point that Mark as Peter's "son" has been taken to mean spiritual son, and there are other such uses in early Christian literature, including in the canon of Scripture. "Babylon" was understood by the early church as a reference to Rome, with its similarities to Babylon in the role of oppressing God's people. If the early church's understanding of the letter written to them was correct, then here again we see Mark in Rome, though it is not certain whether Mark was still there from having visited Paul and Luke, or whether this refers to an earlier stay in Rome. (It can hardly have been a later stay in Rome, as Peter and Paul had both been killed within a few years after the time 2 Timothy was written.)

Mark as a companion of Peter is significant in that the early church saw Mark as recording the reports about Jesus that he had heard from Peter. Peter was apparently familiar with Mark and his family; Luke records that when Peter escaped from prison, he went to the home of Mark's mother, where he was familiar enough that he was known by his voice through the door (Acts 12:12-14). Mark had returned to Jerusalem after briefly traveling with Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:13), though we do not know with certainty whether or how much time he spent with Peter at that point. We do know that Peter was still at least sometimes in Jerusalem (Acts 15:7), where he is recorded as speaking at a meeting also attended by Mark's cousin Barnabas (Acts 15:12), with Barnabas just freshly returned from the journey they had originally begun together.

Here again are events I'd like to have attended. Did they meet with Mark? What kind of welcome would Mark have given his returning cousin? How much of the Jerusalem church would have attended the welcome? Would we have seen Peter, James, John, Mark, Paul, and Barnabas in the same room? It's not unlikely, but no one would have bothered to record a simple occasion like that. Again, we have intriguing possibilities and even a certain probability to some of the meetings, but no definite record. Other questions come to mind: How much time had Mark spent with Peter? Why does Mark alone have the special distinction of Peter referring to him as his "son"? And as for Peter's letter from "Babylon" -- were Peter and Mark ever in Rome at the same time as Paul and Luke?

I nearly titled this section "Conclusion" out of habit, but little of what we have seen rises to the level of conclusions. From 2 Timothy, we do not even know with certainty that Mark and Luke met again, only that if Luke stayed and Mark came as requested, then they certainly would have met. From Paul's letter to Philemon, we do know that Mark and Luke had at one point been "fellow workers" together. This post contains much more speculation than most of the things I write, and that because of the subject matter: we do not definitely know the answers to some of these things.

My ultimate point in writing it is this: there is a lot of existing scholarship about the authorship, history, and relationships of the canonical gospels; almost all of it is speculation. Most people have then agreed in principle that speculation over detail is allowed in an area of scholarship where that type of detail is scarce. However, if speculation is allowed, then it bears noticing that it is easy enough to take concrete details from our existing documents and reconstruct the certainty that Mark and Luke had known each other and been together as fellow workers, that this may have happened on more than one occasion, and that there is no particular reason to suppose a large gap between the date of Mark and the date of Luke since the two knew each other. If we continue from Paul's execution we are likely enough to find Mark and Luke both in Rome just before the fall of Jerusalem, which corresponds fairly well with many of the theories about the dates of authorship of their gospels.