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 Prophecies

So far we have looked at the treatment of certain prophecies in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Next, we will review the same prophecies 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 prophecies 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' prophecy 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 prophecy 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 prophecy. John omits that at this point Peter remembered the prophecy 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' prophecy 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 prophecies 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 prophecies 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 prophecies, 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 one specific cause to these particular differences between John and the others since the accounts are not that closely parallel.

Jesus' prophecy 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 prophecies 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 prophecy at length; it takes all of what we now have as chapter 13. In Matthew also, this is a particularly extensive prophecy that takes all of what we now have as chapter 24. In Luke, this prophecy takes the majority of our chapter 21. What does John have to say about Jesus' prophecy of these events? John likewise places the prophecy 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 prophecy 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 prophecy as serving a prophetic function in declaring what is to come. There is also no indication from the text that the author sees the prophecy 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 prophecy was one which held close to scholarly conventions: that the prophecy 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 prophecy, 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 prophecy 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 prophecy of Jerusalem's destruction and a bare half-mention of the prophecy 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 prophecies 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 prophecies 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 prophecy with two other prophecies 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 prophecies -- not just the ones that had been selected for a quick "compare and contrast" function, but all the new prophecies in the gospel texts along with how they are handled by the gospel authors. Rather than the narrative text-and-commentary on each prophecy as done with the review of just a few prophecies, 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 prophecies, 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' prophecies 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 prophecy; 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 prophecy 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 prophecy? Does it give us any insight into whether the prophecy already been fulfilled at the time of writing?

I think that a prior fulfillment 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 prophecy, 'let the reader remember' might have been more suitable; it would be closer to the approaches to highlighting fulfilled prophecies 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 prophecy 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 prophecy, 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 prophecy, 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 prophecies' in the gospel of John.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Writings of Luke and the New Prophecies

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

In the Gospel of Luke, we can again trace the same three prophecies as in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark: Jesus' prophecy of Peter's denial, Jesus' prophecy of his execution and resurrection, and Jesus' prophecy of the sack of Jerusalem along with the destruction of the Temple. However, some of the more interesting material on Luke's handling of the new prophecies 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 prophecies. After looking at the same prophecies as in Matthew and Mark, we'll consider those as well.

Jesus' prophecy 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 prophecy of Peter's denial (Luke 22:34) and records the fulfillment of that prophecy as Peter denies knowing Jesus (Luke 22:60-62). The record of the prophecy's fulfillment again contains explicit mention that the prophecy was remembered when it was fulfilled. Here Luke stays close to the material and approach already known from earlier sources such as Mark.

Jesus' prophecy of his execution and resurrection
In Luke's handling of the prophecies of Jesus' death and resurrection, we find one such prophecy at Luke 9:22 just before the transfiguration, as in Matthew and Mark. Luke does not repeat the prophecy as Jesus and his disciples come down the mountain, as Matthew and Mark do. Luke records Jesus repeating the prophecy 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 prophecies, Luke records details not found in Matthew or Mark. He also places repeated emphasis on the remembrance of the prophecy:
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' prophecy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple
The prophecy 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 prophecy 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 prophecy of Jerusalem's destruction.

"No one knows the day or the hour" -- this hesitancy formula was seen once in Mark shortly following the prophecy of Jerusalem's fall. As we saw, it was repeatedly emphasized in Matthew, both following the prophecy 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 prophecy 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 prophecy. Why not? The author has made a point of recording the fulfillment of prophecies; it is part of his intended material. Would Luke omit mentioning the fulfillment of a prophecy if it had already been fulfilled? If so, why mention the prophecy 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 prophecies? 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 prophecies, we see additional examples of prophecy that have a bearing on our question. We find that we do have an example of a prophecy that was made in which the details of the fulfillment were not in the scope of his main narrative. Given the religious content of his writing and the religious interest of his readers, how would Luke have handled a prophecy with a fulfillment outside his main narrative?

Acts: Agabus' prophecy 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 prophecy of a famine, but the famine itself is not within the narrative scope of his writing. Still, we see Luke mention the fulfillment of the prophecy. Luke may have recorded the fulfillment because he had recorded the prophecy 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 prophecy was fulfilled (see vv. 29-30), though it would hardly be necessary to mention the prophecy if this were the whole of the reason. Compared with other prophecy/fulfillment pairs we have seen in Luke's writings, there is no "remembrance" or "told you so" clause; then again, the prophecy and its fulfillment are recorded together in the narrative with no intervening material. Here we see that Luke records the fulfillment of a prophecy even when the details of the fulfillment are outside his area of direct interest. The prophecy itself as a prophecy 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 prophecy 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 prophecy -- 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 prophecy, 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 prophecy'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 prophecy that happened to be outside the scope of his main narrative. We see in Luke's handling of the prophecy of the famine: if Luke records a prophecy, 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 interrupt the flow of the narrative. Either we must conclude that Luke was very careless in his handling of prophecy 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 prophecy of Jerusalem's destruction. But in one gospel after another we have seen that this is the only new prophecy whose fulfillment is not recorded. In Matthew and Mark, this prophecy is accompanied by a hesitancy formula that is in sharp contrast to the "remembrance" and "told you so" formulas seen for the prophecies that were known to have been fulfilled. In Luke, this prophecy is not granted even 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 prophecies is an incomplete argument; it neglects to study how the authors handle the fulfillment of prophecy, and the evidence that the authors consistently record such a fulfillment whenever it is known. Based on the internal evidence of how the synoptic gospels handle the fulfillment of the recorded prophecies, it seems 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 prophecy of the destruction, and the handling of prophecy 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 Prophecies

In this post, I am continuing a review of various New Testament writings and particularly how they handle "new prophecies" -- that is, prophecies 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 prophecies as in the Gospel of Mark: Jesus' prophecy of Peter's denial, Jesus' prophecy of his execution and resurrection, and Jesus' prophecy of the sack of Jerusalem along with the destruction of the Temple.

Jesus' prophecy of Peter's denial

The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus' prophecy 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 prophecy and the fulfillment, and again the fulfillment includes a remembrance of the original prophecy. 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' prophecy 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 prophecy as mentioned at that point by Mark. The prediction at Matthew 20:18-19 parallels Mark 10:33-34.

With this prophecy, Matthew provides a somewhat different follow-up on the fulfillment 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 prophecy placed closer to the mention of the prophecy'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 prophecy 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 prophecy and the fulfillment. Matthew spends more time on recollecting the prophecy 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 prophecy.

Again, there is no doubt that with Matthew, as with Mark, the author's agenda included making sure the readers knew that the prophecy had been made and was fulfilled. Here with this prophecy we see Matthew working beyond the material paralleled in Mark, with Matthew recording more material on the recollection of the prophecy. The additional material here in Matthew is independent of that found in Mark, and demonstrates that the author's own narrative purposes did include mentioning additional material supporting the claim of fulfilled prophecy.

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

Finally, we come to Matthew's record of Jesus' prophecy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. As with Mark, the prophecy 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 prophecies 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 (Mark 13:35), the unknown day or hour is the time when the owner of the house returns. So there is some 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 definitely from the texts of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark alone. It bears mentioning that, once again, the prophecies which we know were certainly 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 prophecies are noted and remembered. Again, it would be odd for the author to omit mentioning the fulfillment of the prophecy, given that he has demonstrated a pattern of highlighting the fulfillment of prophecy. 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 prophecies" made in the New Testament era.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Gospel of Mark and the new prophecies

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 prophecies 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 prophecies 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 prophecies made either by Jesus or by Christians who were said to be prophesying, as those were prophecies 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 prophecies 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 prophecies 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 prophecy and fulfillment when the prophecy was made by Jesus or his followers (or attributed to them).

In the Gospel of Mark, I have traced three such prophecies: Jesus' prophecy of Peter's denial, Jesus' prophecy of his execution and resurrection, and Jesus' prophecy of the sack of Jerusalem with the accompanying destruction of the Temple. In each case I will review not only the prophecy, but whether the fulfillment is recorded and whether the fulfillment draws the reader's attention to the original prophecy. If the author repeatedly draws attention to a prophecy/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 prophecy.

Jesus' prophecy of Peter's denial

The first prophecy 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 prophecy/fulfillment pair, we see that the author recorded both the prophecy and the fulfillment. During the fulfillment portion, the author calls attention to the fact that a prophecy has been fulfilled. Here we have a "remembrance" noted in the fulfillment text, underscoring for the reader that the prophecy was now being fulfilled.

Jesus' prophecy 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 prophecy (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 prophecy and the fulfillment. During the fulfillment portion, the author again calls attention to the fact that a prophecy 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 prophecy and the fulfillment. Besides noting the fulfillment, the author has also, at each fulfillment, drawn attention to the original prophecy with either a "remembrance" or a "told you so".

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

Next we come to Jesus' prophecy of the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. It is based on this prophecy that some have placed the date for the Gospel of Mark and all the other gospels 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 prophecies which have been fulfilled?

The prophecy is made at some length in Mark 13. In this case, while we do have a prophecy, 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 prophecy is observably different from the others.


As the Gospel of Mark records Jesus' prophecies 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 prophecies whose fulfillment is known to be already past when the gospel was written, the author records not only the prophecy and its fulfillment, but also calls attention to the fulfilled status of the prophecy by recording either a remembrance formula or a told-you-so formula. In sharp contrast, the prophecy 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 prophecies considered to have been fulfilled. Jesus' hesitancy about the timing of the fulfillment is recorded, which would have been completely unnecessary if the prophecy 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 prophecies already considered to be fulfilled.

Based on how the author handles the different prophecies, 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.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A scroll of remembrance

I struggle with "family issues" around holiday time; I think most of our family does, though we don't mention it. In our family there are a lot of old hatreds and wrongs that have never been addressed, though at the holidays we all get in the same room and try to be polite. All the unspoken clutter in the air can be uncomfortable. It has the feel of a bomb with a fuse, and every conversation is playing with matches.

Last time I wrote about these struggles in any depth, my to-do list for one relative included "Seek out chances to break the ice" and "Rehearse stories of every good thing they've ever done, back as far as I can remember, and in front of other people". I'd made some progress under ice-breaking. I'd even told a good story or two on this relative to my children. But I knew there was more to it than that. This particular relative of mine is very charming and incredibly helpful -- to everyone but family, I would find myself thinking in my worse moments.

In some corner of my mind I was aware that, whenever some important good was done in Biblical days, somehow or other the names and deeds of the people found their way into the permanent record. At one point it even mentions that a "scroll of remembrance" was written before God of all those who feared God and revered his name (Malachi 3:16). The solution was staring me in the face, but it took me awhile to reconcile myself to it: I needed to make a written record of all the good this person had ever done me. It took longer still before I could bring myself to put a pen to paper and actually write it.

Once I started writing, I was really surprised how quickly the list grew with all the helps and kindnesses the person had shown me over the years. The record was soon to two pages, with new memories tumbling over themselves to get onto the pages which were filled into the margins and packed tight to fit in all the things that were now coming to mind.

A few weeks came and went, and the "scroll of remembrance" faded from my mind. Once again I saw this person spending far more time on others and ignoring family. I spent Thanksgiving morning cleaning the house finding resentful thoughts creeping up around me. I was going to be in a terrible frame of mind to host Thanksgiving. Looking for a way to get my attitude under control, I re-read the "scroll of remembrance." (When I started, the nasty part of my mind said I should have a "scroll of remembrance" for all the horrible things this person had done, too. But I'm counting on God taking my own "horrible things" list and casting it in the sea and remembering it no more, so I figure I'd best not start a list like that for anyone else.)

The resentment melted away, and with the freshly defrosted heart, there was a suitable "neutral territory" in my home to host the sometimes-tense family gathering. There were still a few tense moments, glances exchanged at various things said ... but at the end the person whose "scroll" I'd read did something that I do not believe had ever done before: reached out and gave me a hug. (We'd been trading hugs ever since it got on my to-do list to find ways to break the ice. But this was the first time the other person had been the one to reach out.)

I don't know how anyone else's family is. I just know there's a lot of sin and brokenness in the world, and I take it we're not exactly the only family to struggle with all the togetherness during the holidays. For what it's worth, it did help in our case to write a scroll of remembrance of the good things the other person had done -- and to have it handy to re-read when it was badly needed. ;)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

In honor of the holiday, I'm taking a blog break. I plan to be back this weekend. Wishing everyone the best.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thanksgiving: How to fix poverty on American Indian reservations

The issue of justice for Native Americans is near and dear to my heart. I think the goal for which we should strive is for the American Indians to be at least as prosperous as the rest of us in this country, and consider that the smallest return on their welcome that we could, in good conscience, accept. I have long pondered how we could realistically reach that goal.

I would like to float an idea as a possible solution: what if the American Indian nations were given permanent seats in the U.S. Congress? Benefits of congressional seats:
  • Representation: a voice in policy;
  • Representation: a voice when lobbying for federal projects;
  • Electoral votes: every presidential candidate in a close race would be obligated to visit the reservations, a thing which is almost unheard of presently.
  • Presence: it would go a long way towards alleviating the "out of sight, out of mind" forgotten status of the American Indians
.I'm sure there would be a thousand details to work out. But I expect the end result would be well worth it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Resurrection in the Talmud: The seed as analogy for death and resurrection

When considering whether Judaism views resurrection as a physical event, we may ask whether the Talmud ever uses the analogy of a seed for resurrection, as is used in the writings of Paul in the New Testament. Here we see an exchange recorded in the Talmud in which a seed is used as an analogy for resurrection:
Queen Cleopatra asked R. Meir, ‘I know that the dead will revive, for it is written, And they [sc. the righteous] shall [in the distant future] blossom forth out of the city [Jerusalem] like the grass of the earth. (Psalm 72:16) But when they arise, shall they arise nude or in their garments?’ — He replied, ‘Thou mayest deduce by an a fortiori argument [the answer] from a wheat grain: if a grain of wheat, which is buried naked, sprouteth forth in many robes, how much more so the righteous, who are buried in their raiment!’ (Sanhedrin 90b)
The study notes to the Soncino Talmud advise that this is not the "Cleopatra" of "Anthony and Cleopatra", but rather a ruler of Samaria. R. Meir's life was slightly later than that of Paul. He was one of the principle authors of the Mishnah portions of the Talmud, so that any anonymous portions of the Mishnah were by default considered to have been written by him (Sanhedrin 86a). He was ordained during the persecutions following the Bar Kochba rebellion (Sanhedrin 14a), helping us date the start of his rabbinic career to the first half of the 100's A.D. Dating the origins of sayings in the Gemara in the Talmud is trickier, but regardless of the dating, we find that the analogy of a seed for resurrection had at some point become part of the tradition of Pharisaic Judaism.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Resurrection in the Talmud: The Banquet of the Righteous

When considering whether Judaism views resurrection as a physical event, the first passage I would like to review is the Talmud's discussion of the feast or banquet of the righteous:
The Holy One, blessed be He, will make a great banquet for the righteous on the day He manifests His love to the seed of Isaac. After they have eaten and drunk, the cup of Grace will be offered to our father Abraham, that he should recite Grace, but he will answer them, 'I cannot say Grace, because Ishmael issued from me.' Then Isaac will be asked, 'Take it and say Grace.' 'I cannot say Grace,' he will reply, 'because Esau issued from me.' Then Jacob will be asked: 'Take it and say Grace.' 'I cannot say Grace,' he will reply. 'because I married two sisters during [both] their lifetimes, whereas the Torah was destined to forbid them to me.' Then Moses will be asked, 'Take it and say Grace.' 'I cannot say Grace, because I was not privileged to enter Eretz Yisrael either in life or in death.' Then Joshua will be asked: 'Take it and say Grace.' 'I cannot say Grace,' he will reply, 'because I was not privileged to have a son,' for it is written, Joshua the son of Nun; Nun his son, Joshua his son. Then David will be asked: 'Take it and say Grace.' 'I will say Grace, and it is fitting for me to say Grace,' he will reply, as it is said, I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. (Pesachim 119b)
Here we see a Jewish view of resurrection in vividly physical terms: a banquet in which the resurrected both eat and drink, and a cup is offered to a series of the great patriarchs in turn, each in turn declining the honor until finally David accepts the cup. The Banquet of Salvation is envisioned as including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, and David, who lived at different times separated from each other in some cases by centuries. The banquet is anticipated as occurring in the future, and this was anticipated at a time when all of these great heroic figures of early Judaism had already died. These particular patriarchs could only sit together at a table for a future banquet -- eating, drinking, and passing a cup -- in the case of a physical resurrection from the dead.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bodily resurrection in Second Temple Judaism, the Talmud, and Early Christianity: Part 1


Various scholars have raised questions about what resurrection meant in the early Christian community. Some have contended that resurrection might not have been a physical resurrection as has been so long believed, but that it might refer to something more like survival or revival of the spirit without the body. While the New Testament documents as a whole are repeatedly explicit that the resurrection being referred to is bodily, those making the case often dismiss all but the earliest-written of the New Testament documents, namely the Gospel of Mark and the earliest letters of Paul. This removes most of the records we have of Jesus’ life and removes most of the New Testament textual material which is explicit about the physical nature of the resurrection. On this basis, some claim that therefore we cannot be certain what the earliest church understood in the concept of resurrection, and that it may well not have meant a bodily resurrection to the earliest Christians.

However, an a priori disqualification of all but the earliest few texts in the Christian canon does not leave us without information about what someone raised as a Jew of that era understood when discussing resurrection. All of the earliest Christians were born and raised in Jewish families and in the Jewish culture of the era, and all of the earliest Christian writings under consideration were written by those born and raised in Jewish families and Jewish culture. We have already seen that, along with many other of the early Christian writings, the Gospel of Mark is deeply saturated with Jewish concepts and culture. The point of this article is to show how resurrection was understood in the Judaism of that era and the specifically bodily nature of resurrection in the Judaism of that day. Establishing what resurrection meant in that culture in that era, and establishing that the early Christians understood resurrection in terms of the ongoing Jewish discussion of resurrection, thereby establishes what the earliest Christians meant when they referred to resurrection.

Jesus and the Sadducees: the Jewish resurrection controversy in the New Testament

First we must ask: Can we establish that the earliest New Testament documents discussed resurrection in terms of the pre-existing Jewish concept of resurrection? We will review a conversation recorded in what many scholars believe to be the earliest of the canonical gospels, the Gospel of Mark:
Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. "Teacher," they said, "Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?"
Jesus replied, "Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!" (Mark 12:18-26)

Here we see the earliest Christians viewing Jesus’ teaching on resurrection against the background of the Jewish conversation on resurrection. We see Jesus addressing this pre-existing controversy, coming out on the side of resurrection. The Jewish view of resurrection, particularly as held by those who believed in a resurrection, then becomes the relevant background and context for understanding what the earliest Christians, who were without exception Jewish, understood when they thought of resurrection and meant to communicate when they discussed resurrection.

To be continued ...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The triumph of God over chaos

There was evening,
   and there was morning ...
Have you ever gotten your days and nights switched so that you were sleeping and waking out of your habit and pattern? At times like that I often feel tired, and even when fully awake and energetic, I tend to be unhappy that I am fully awake at such an odd hour, knowing that it will only perpetuate another day out of rhythm.
There was evening,
   and there was morning ...
The creation account in Genesis 1 has several refrains, and one is the ordering of time. As God begins to bring order to the chaos, besides creating things he also gives order to time. He establishes a pulse in the world, a rhythm by which all life marks time.

I have a conjecture that people deprived of contact with nature are more likely to be atheists, while those in more contact with the natural world are more likely to perceive the hand of the creator. I wonder whether the same might happen with people whose lives have been wrenched out of any natural daily rhythm -- those on rotating shifts or rotating days off, or even with over-full schedules where days all run together in an endless chaotic blur.
There was evening,
   and there was morning ...
In the process of creating, the ultimate triumph of God over chaos is the Sabbath. A day of rest, a day of peace, a day of quiet, a day of blessing: a day in which the rhythm of time has been so thoroughly kneaded into the world that there is a day, a blessed day, free of chaos.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Verse That Launched a Thousand Apologetic Enterprises

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. -- from 1 Peter 3:15

I’d bet this verse has launched more study programs in defending the Christian faith than any other. "Be prepared" – it evokes pictures of diligent boyscouts, of tireless and extensive preparations. We remember the myriad of trick questions that hostile anti-Christians can throw at us. We may ask ourselves whether we are prepared to answer every trick question in the book. And when we think that way, we’re very wrong about the big picture – mostly because we miss the fact that Peter gave us the answer along with the instruction to be prepared to give that answer. Also because he asks us to prepare for a much simpler task than we have just imagined. We end up thinking the goal that Peter named was beyond the reach of the average Christian; we have missed what Peter said his point was.

A simpler task than we imagine

Look closely at what Peter said; what people are we supposed to be prepared to answer? Peter did not call all people to be ready to give an answer to every heckler who stays up nights twisting words and skewing facts to invent trick questions. Again look closely at what Peter said; what content are we supposed to be prepared to answer? He did not call us to be prepared to defend complicated theories. He told us to be prepared to answer the people who ask us, "Why do you have hope?"

By the time Peter tells us to be prepared to answer the people who ask us, "Why do you have hope?" he has already explained to his readers why we should have hope. He has also explained how we should get people to notice that hope so that they might ask us about it.

Why we should have hope

Peter begins his letter, right after his first greetings, reminding us of one of the main points of his letter: the reason for our hope.

he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. - from 1 Peter 1:3

Because Christ is risen, there is hope. If we have said that much, we have done well. If we have answered a hundred questions but have not managed to work in that much, we have not done well. If we've convinced an atheist that the New Testament is 98% as originally written down, but they are still scared to die because they think it means their own annihilation; if they are still scared to approach God because they still imagine him to be a cosmic bully, then we have not done well. If Christ had not risen, what hope would we have? Would we be sure there will be a resurrection? Would we be sure that God is merciful? Would we be sure that God loves mankind and wants to save us? Peter, who wrote these words, had himself seen Jesus risen from the dead. He knew what he was talking about. Jesus’ resurrection changes everything.

Peter talks further about the hope that we have because of the resurrection:

an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you. – 1 Peter 1:4

You were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers. – 1 Peter 1:18

The one who trusts in him will never be put to shame. -- 1 Peter 2:6

set your hope fully on the grace being given you as Jesus Christ is revealed. -- 1 Peter 1:13

These are the hope we have: an inheritance that will not fade; a way of life that is not empty; escape from being justly put to shame; God's favor given in Christ. That is our hope.

I'm not criticizing the approach to apologetics that seeks to answer the legitimate questions from honest skeptics. I'm not even criticizing the niche in apologetics that seeks to answer the trick questions from hecklers and harrassers; I do those kinds of things myself as time permits. But it does bear mentioning that that's not directly what Peter was talking about, and we cannot afford to neglect the real heart of our hope: Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

As regards apologetics and the resurrection itself, there's still room for misunderstanding. There is a time and a place to answer questions about the resurrection, whether from honest questioners or from hecklers; but neither of these are what Peter is addressing. Peter is talking about describing how the resurrection is a legitimate cause for hope. Despite nearly two thousand years of assorted opposition, Jesus' resurrection is still supported by 100% of the available first-century records on the subject, so we're genuinely justified in basing our position on its reality when we discuss why we have hope. We need not always start on the defensive as if we have to persuade people of the possibility of miracles or the identity of Jesus or why they should consider Christianity before we can mention why the resurrection matters; in fact many of the preceding are answered better by Jesus' resurrection than by anything else. Some atheists (for example, the philosopher Michael Martin) have mentioned not seeing why the resurrection should matter as a reason for rejecting it. If we spend all our time discussing the mere fact that there is plenty of evidence, and none of our time discussing the good that God has done for mankind through the resurrection, then we have not given the reason for our hope as Peter instructs.

How we should get people to notice

Peter knew what it was like to witness to a hostile world. He knew what it was like to have enemies, to be attacked, to be outcast, to have even the leaders against him. He knew what it was to suffer, to be lied about. So he had some very practical advice on how to get people to notice, whether they were enemies, mockers, or just plain indifferent.

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. -- 1 Peter 2: 12

If we’re not living such good lives that even the pagans have to notice, we’re dropping the ball. We’re not dropping the ball when we don’t know the answer to the latest trick question. We’re dropping the ball when we’re leading impure lives, when we're not living proof of God’s compassion, when we’re not a very present help in time of trouble. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty – Christ is our forgiveness. But having forgiveness can shade over to laziness and complacency. We are called to live such good lives among the pagans that they notice.

For one of the toughest situations, a wife trying to witness to an unbelieving husband, Peter has this advice which can help in other tough situations as well:

If any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by [your] behavior when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” – from 1 Peter 3:1-2

Peter also said,

It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. -- 1 Peter 2:15.

Are we trying to silence "the ignorant talk of foolish men" by arguing with them? Since when has an argument ever silenced someone who is foolish? How many are actually encouraged by arguments, since that is what they were really looking for? And is it God’s will that we should silence the ignorant talk by more talk? It would be over-hasty to say never; there is a time and a place and a way to answer. But in general, we are to answer useless words with useful actions.

And, finally, when people do ask – even if they are still heckling – when words finally come into the picture, when we give the reason for the hope we have, how do we behave?

But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. -- from 1 Peter 3:15-16

If we haven't answered with gentleness and respect, if we have stooped to heckling or demeaning, it is probable that we haven't kept a clear conscience; God knows our hearts. At any rate, if we are not gentle and respectful, those who speak maliciously against us will feel (reasonably enough) that their slander is justified.

Peter also hints that we’re going to be slandered one way or another: if we do evil, we will be slandered for doing evil. If we do good, we will be slandered for doing good. The temptation to cave in to evil or fit in with the world in order to avoid slander is nothing but wishful thinking. Even if we go along with the world we will still be slandered – and it will be justified.

A reason for the hope

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. – 1 Peter 1:3

That is the reason for our hope.

This was originally published at CADRE Comments, 06/26/2005, and has been slightly updated for clarity.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Patristics Carnival XVII

Welcome to the November 2008 Patristics Carnival.

The Patristics Carnival is a monthly collection of patristics-related posts initiated and organized by Phil Snider.

Book Reviews

Introductions to the Fathers


Commentaries, Research, and Assessments of the Fathers

Lives of the Fathers: Ignatius of Antioch

This month saw a number of tributes to and commemorations of Ignatius of Antioch in honor of his feast day:

Lives of the Fathers: Other than Ignatius


Possibly Polemical Patristics

This section has the caveat lector entries, where the posts are in some ways incendiary, polemical, or otherwise calculated to provoke, but may still contain material of interest for carnival readers.

Apocryphal Corner


And that's all for the November 2008 patristics carnival. Keep an eye on Phil's blog for details about the next edition of the Carnival.