This is the sixth and final post in a series offering a number of imaginary letters from the ancient world, only recently “discovered”. The letters, we might imagine, reflect what the recipient of the “orderly account of the things that have come to fulfilment” (what we know as the Gospel of Luke), the man named Theophilus, might have written to the author of that work, as he received sections of the “orderly account” in sequence.
Theophilus to Luke, greetings. I am returning soon.
I was astonished to receive your brief note to the effect that you had in fact been raised a Jew. I had no idea! This explains your own depth of understanding of things Jewish. And to think that you have laboured so hard and long to acquire a knowledge of the great writers and thinkers of our Greek civilisation—I am filled with awe.
I must now think harder about the various people who come to the regular gatherings of our group, where we hear the good news of Jesus proclaimed. I wonder just how diverse a group we actually are? The fact that I have come only of late to this gathering has meant that there is much that I do not know.
I look forward to being able to talk with you face to face about the things that we have touched on in our letters to one another.
I am happy to hear that you have continued writing so productively, and I will of course be keen to read your second volume once I have returned.
Greetings to all.
Questions for discussion: The use which Theophilus makes of Luke’s Gospel changes in the course of these six letters. What different stages can you identify in the way that he uses the Gospel?
These letters suggest one way that the story of Jesus became known to those outside of the Jewish culture and religion. Can you think of other ways that this may have happened?
Do you think that Luke was a Jew? What would support this idea? What might count against it?
This is the fifth post in a series offering a number of imaginary letters from the ancient world, only recently “discovered”. The letters, we might imagine, reflect what the recipient of the “orderly account of the things that have come to fulfilment” (what we know as the Gospel of Luke), the man named Theophilus, might have written to the author of that work, as he received sections of the “orderly account” in sequence.
I give thanks to God, etc., etc. But I must turn swiftly to the matter at hand!
After the success of my earlier reading from your narrative at table with my companions, I am happy to report that we have held another reading. I was of the opinion that we ought to pick up at the point where we had stopped last time, but two of my companions indicated that they were about to leave the city, and they strongly desired to hear the conclusion of your story before they left.
I, of course, was grateful for the opportunity to convey more of the story to my fellow-diners; and I was anxious that they hear the good news about how, even after Pilate sentenced Jesus to death, God was able to raise him from the dead. So together the company of diners agreed that I would read two selections from the later part of your work.
The first selection was of the teachings of Jesus in the temple (Luke 20:1– 21:4). I chose this so that my audience might appreciate the wisdom of God which was manifested in the words of Jesus, and hear how he was able to refute all objections placed in front of him. How I admired this capacity to better any opponent!
The second selection was of the death and burial of Jesus (23:26–56) and of the way the good news of the risen Lord became known (24:1–53). By this means, I was able to avoid difficult questions about some of the final teachings of Jesus, when he predicted the destruction of the temple and spoke about the cosmic catastrophes yet to come; and about the precise status of Jesus, for he was crucified as a rebel under the Roman authority of Pilate.
Instead, I was able to focus on the valiant and stoic manner in which he faced death, as you especially emphasise in your narrative of that sombre moment. And, of course, I was able to convey the essence of the good news about Jesus, that God raised him from the dead in a sovereign act of grace.
However, I must recount to you the striking turn which was taken in the course of our discussion. I had not realised at the start of our meal that there was a person at table who was present with us for the first time in this group. I suspect that he had been properly introduced to the group before I arrived; to my shame, I confess, I had been delayed and did not arrive until the group was already eating.
It was by sheer grace that my host welcomed me to the table and that those present agreed to the reading from your work, as we had earlier agreed. I was afraid that my late arrival might have prejudiced this agreement. But I digress. It turns out that this visitor was not only a learned man (as was soon evident from his contributions to the discussion) but also a man very familiar with the scriptures of the Jewish people.
Here I must make another confession. In your narrative, you make many references to such scriptures (as I now recognise). Sometimes these are direct references, which you occasionally signal as such; elsewhere, as I have learned, you subtly allude to portions of these scriptures. Indeed, I now appreciate the depth of your learning; for not only do you show a profound understanding of Greek history writing, but also a fine knowledge of the prophecies of the ancient Jews.
Of course, I had always understood that it was natural for Jesus to make reference to these scriptures, for they were his sacred books. He was, as you so clearly demonstrate, a Jew. But now, I am happy to say, I also have an appreciation (I believe) of how you have made appropriate use of these scriptures in your work.
What I learned from our visiting scholar can be traced to the explicit references to these scriptures in the final section of your work: your description of the conversation about the scriptures which Jesus had at table with the travellers in Emmaus (Luke 24:25–27), and especially the words of Jesus spoken to the group of his followers who were gathered in Jerusalem: “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (24:44). Aha—there it is again, that potent little word, “must be fulfilled”! At any rate, our discussion this past evening ventured into new fields for me.
The learned visitor was struck with these references to the prophets, and asked me no end of questions about this matter. As I had the whole of your manuscript with me, I was able, with only a little difficulty, to find other instances where Jesus, in your narrative, had referred directly to the prophecies in those scriptures, and also to the prophecies which he himself uttered. I must say, I was surprised just how many such instances there were throughout your work!
What was of fascination to myself, and I hope to others at the meal, was the way in which this scholar drew comparisons with the scriptures of Israel. Apparently, the idea that a prophecy such as an oracle bought from an oracle monger, or the reading of entrails, or the explanation of an omen, might be fulfilled. This idea is not at all strange to us; it is also to be found in the narratives of the Jews.
This information was not known to the company as a whole, and so the visitor found that he had acquired a platform for explaining the history of the Jewish people to an interested audience. This was not what many of us would have anticipated at the start of the evening! Indeed, what struck me as the man expounded his theme, was just how familiar some of this was to me.
Strange, for I am not known as one who religiously reads the Jewish scriptures! Yet I realised that the patterns and structures of the stories told and analysed by our learned companion were very close to some of the patterns and structures that I had encountered in my reading of your narrative.
The way that Jesus uttered prophecies and they came to pass later in the narrative—this is very close to the Jewish pattern. So too, the explicit note of scriptural prophecies coming to fulfilment in the narrative itself—this formulaic patterning of events is also akin to the Jewish pattern. I began to wonder just how much of this you might have been aware of. Were you consciously writing in the style of the Jewish historians?
Towards the end of the evening, the visitor spoke of the work of an acquaintance of his, who is presently writing in Rome, in an attempt to tell us gentiles about the Jewish people. Apparently this writer, one Flavius (Josephus) by name, makes abundant use of this pattern of prophecy and fulfilment in the course of his narrative.
And, I should tell you, he also deploys the motif of divine providence to interpret the story of the Jewish people to the learned Romans. What a striking coincidence; the very same features that we find in your work! Do you, perchance, know of this Flavius? Or is it simply that you and he have both been trained in the same manner, with due attention to the essential features of Greek history writing and Jewish scripture interpretation? A fascinating question, I dare say, even if I have posed it myself!
Incidentally, it must be noted that it was with no little surprise that I learned, at the conclusion of our dinner and discussion, that the visiting scholar at our table was himself a Jew. I had imagined that he was, like you, a gentile scholar who had made a special study of the Jewish scriptures; but apparently he was raised himself as a Jew, and he bears the bodily marks to prove this. (I must assure you that this last statement is made on the basis of a statement made by the man himself, not on any personal inspection which I carried out!)
Although I had long heard of such a phenomenon, this was in fact the first time that I had encountered a Jew who displayed no clear sign of his religion in the way that he behaved. To all intents and purposes, he acted like one of us—until the discussion turned to prophecies from scripture, I must add. Back home, the Jews in our city are much more distinctive; and even those of Jewish origin in our own group are quite noticeably so, I believe.
Well, I must conclude. I confess that I had not before thought so hard about the matters which I have canvassed above. I am glad, now, that we were able to discuss these things around the table in the house of Themistocles. It has shed a new light on your work.
I wonder, now, just how much of this was your intention as you wrote your story of Jesus? Perhaps we should add this to our list of things to discuss when we are able to meet face to face in Achaia.
Greetings to all.
Question for discussion: what is the importance, for you, of the parts of scripture that say, “this fulfilled the scriptures”?
This is the fourth post in a series offering a number of imaginary letters from the ancient world, only recently “discovered”. The letters, we might imagine, reflect what the recipient of the “orderly account of the things that have come to fulfilment” (what we know as the Gospel of Luke), the man named Theophilus, might have written to the author of that work, as he received sections of the “orderly account” in sequence.
I give thanks to God for all good things granted to you.
I write briefly, so that this letter might accompany the rather more lengthy report and request, concerning my business affairs. I will not bore you with those details. But I do want you to know that now I understand what was meant by the words which you wrote that Jesus spoke: “you are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48).
Eumenes is thinking deeply about Jesus, whilst some others are at least interested to hear more about him. For myself, I am thinking much more about things than I have ever done before—even, I must say, to the point of feeling that I am able to mount a defence, an apologia, of what it is that I believe. I am most grateful that your narrative of Jesus has had this effect in me, and in those whom I have already mentioned. I will tell you more at a later date.
This is the third post in a series offering a number of imaginary letters from the ancient world, only recently “discovered”. The letters, we might imagine, reflect what the recipient of the “orderly account of the things that have come to fulfilment” (what we know as the Gospel of Luke), the man named Theophilus, might have written to the author of that work, as he received sections of the “orderly account” in sequence.
I give thanks to God for your faith, and for your gift of storytelling. But let me get straight to the point.
How exciting it was! As we gathered at table, my companions were in fact eager to hear from your writings. I had mentioned to them, at our last meal, that I was reading through your work, and that I was much impressed with its erudition as well as with its entertainment value. (I think, perhaps, that I exaggerated my point a little; but I am sure that you will forgive me this.) So, they were most eager to hear from it for themselves, and accordingly, I was able to read to them a not insignificant section of your work.
I chose to begin by reading from the charge which Jesus gave to his twelve closest followers, when he sent them out to proclaim God’s kingdom amongst the villages (Luke 9:1–6). I must admit that my decision to begin at this place was influenced by the fact that immediately after this, you reported the interest which King Herod showed, as he wished to learn more about Jesus (9:7–9).
It seemed to me to be important to establish that people of means and power, such as Herod, could take an interest in Jesus; for this was precisely the kind of group to which I was reading your account—people of means and power.
I continued my reading of what took place in your narrative, through the description of Jesus’ decision to head, steadfastly and with steely resolve, towards Jerusalem (9:51). At this point, the nobility of Jesus’ words about the supreme importance that should be attached to following him (9:57–62) had a striking effect on those who heard it.
All agreed that this was a most unconventional way to go about collecting students to teach! The reading followed all that you had written, in order, right on up to the passage where Jesus spoke with vigour and passion about God’s care for each one of us (12:22–34).
I must admit that I had some degree of discomfort when I read the stinging words spoken by Jesus concerning the rich, just before this passage (12:13– 21); for I felt that some of my companions at table might well take offence. I was also aware that some other things that Jesus had said must have been perplexing to my companions, for they probably were not aware of the intense hatred for Samaritans which is found amongst the inhabitants of Judea (9:52–56; 10:25–37).
However, it was more than pleasing to discover that these people amongst my audience were more concerned to explore the significance of Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom, and the sovereignty of God, which seem to be scattered throughout the excerpt which we read. In fact, the reading was interrupted by a vigorous discussion immediately after I had read the words, “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32).
I was struck in a way that I had not imagined before, by the comments of one Philoxenes, a learned man, who showed not a little awareness of the niceties of history writing. For, you see, Philoxenes proposed that your description of Jesus as one who pointed to the providential care of God, was not unlike the way that some of the writers of the history of Greece and Rome had made use of precisely this topos to organise their works.
Indeed, I began to recall some of the lessons I had taken many years ago— lessons whose relevance had faded into insignificance until the present moment reawakened them in my memory. Lessons about how a good work of history tells of how the gods intervened in events, in both direct and indirect ways, so as to be seen to be sovereign over those events.
In the course of this discussion, I had occasion to refer to some comments in earlier passages of your work which I found to be of particular relevance. For instance, when you noted that Jesus preached his message as he travelled around the synagogues of Judea (by the way, surely you mean Galilee?—for at this point in the story, Jesus was active only in the north!)—when you say that his message was, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom” (4:43), are you intending to allude to this theme, of the providential guidance of human actions by the gods? For it seemed to some of us at table—and I must confess to being persuaded by this view—that this was, indeed, the theme which you had in mind: the divine necessity which impelled the message of Jesus.
Furthermore, as I proudly pointed out, in a portion of the work which we had not yet read (but which I have already surveyed), Jesus himself says, “I must be on my way to Jerusalem” (13:33). And I also noted that you had very clearly reported Jesus as referring to “the plan of God” (7:30) in a section of the work before that which we read at the meal.
And someone else commented on the striking tone of Jesus’ words to the disciples, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering” (9:21), words which came almost immediately before the voice of God himself was heard, commending Jesus as “my son, my chosen one” (9:35). For it seemed to us that you had provided us, your listeners, with many pointers to the way in which the story of Jesus took place under the guidance and direction of the Lord God.
If this is indeed the case, I shall be careful to note any recurrences of this idea in the later sections of your work which, I confess, I have not yet been able to read. For I am now of the mind that you have consciously shaped your narrative on the models provided by those earlier chroniclers of human history who were intent upon showing how the divine providence has “brought the orderly arrangement of the visible stars and the natures of human beings together into one common relationship, continually directing their course throughout all eternity” (Diodorus Siculus, Universal History 1.1.3).
If you have time, it would be good to hear your comments on these ruminations. If you are not able to write—and I do not need to remind you of the comments you made to me, about how you would be consumed by the task of completing your second volume, so that it might be complete when I return—then I shall look forward to a spirited discussion with you when I see you once more in Achaia.
Greetings to all. Secundus, the faithful scribe of all that Theophilus dictates to him, adds his greetings. I pray that you may keep well.
I will return in a short time, after my business here is complete. Farewell.
Questions for discussion: what do you think of the idea that “divine providence” is the guiding force in the events of history? do we still hold to this idea today? how do we discern what is in accord with the plan of God?
Next Sunday is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. The tradition within the churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary is that this is designated as the Feast of the Transfiguration, and the Gospel reading jumps from the early sections of Luke (chapters 4, 5 and 6) of recent weeks, to the story of the Transfiguration (9:28–36). See my reflections at https://johntsquires.com/2019/02/26/bringing-his-exodos-to-fulfilment/
In other denominations, including a number of Orthodox churches and in Roman Catholicism, the Transfiguration is celebrated on 6 August (the date was set for Catholics by decree of Pope Callixtus III in 1456).
For the last five weeks, we have been following key stories from the earlier chapters of Luke’s orderly account (Luke 4–6). But this Sunday we jump to chapter 9. By shifting from the continuous reading of Luke’s Gospel at this time, we lose the passage that would have been next to hear—the concluding section of the Lukan sermon on the plain (6:39–49). And we also lose the next story, the healing of the centurion’s servant (7:1–10). These two passages are scheduled in the lectionary for the Sundays of Epiphany 8C and Epiphany 9C, respectively.
That’s a contingency for those rare years when Easter, which follows the lunar calendar, is late, and the season of Epiphany stretches out for a full two months. In 2038, for instance, Easter Sunday will fall on 25 April and allow for a full Epiphany season. But not in 2022; Easter is mid-April, and the season of Epiphany ends earlier.
The parallel to this story in Matthew’s book of origins (Matt 8:5–13) does not appear in the Year A lectionary at all. Epiphany ends with the Sermon on the Mount (7:21–29), and the continuous reading of the Gospel resumes after Trinity Sunday with the account of the calling of the tax collector, Matthew (9:9–13). The story is also told in John’s book of signs (John 4:46–54) but that version also does not appear in the lectionary at any stage through the three-year cycle.
So I’m offering a blog on this story, even though it’s not on offer next Sunday. It’s a story that points to some important Lukan themes, so it is a pity that it is usually omitted.
The figures at the centre of this story are the centurion and his slave (doulos) who was ill, “at the point of death” (7:2); these characters appear also in Matthew’s account, where the ill person is his servant (pais). In John, Jesus engages with “a royal official”, whose son (huios—not servant or slave) was ill. The story is obviously the same, even though the characters are slightly different.
Only Luke reports that Jewish elders were sent by the centurion to Jesus, to function as intermediaries (7:3). There are no such intermediaries in the versions found in Matthew and John. It is been hypothesised that this avoids having Jesus come into direct contact with a Gentile—although, as we have seen, Gentiles were surely already present listening to Jesus and being healed by him (6:17–20). Nevertheless, Jesus himself follows the protocols expected of a faithful Jew, by not entering the house of a Gentile.
This is in accord with the statement placed in the mouth Peter, when he met with Cornelius some years later: “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile” (Acts 10:28). This position, of course, was overturned by the vision that Peter saw in Joppa (10:11–12), and led to his desire and intention to share in table fellowship with Cornelius (as is implied by 10:23a and 10:48). This is the big, climactic moment in Luke’s two-volume account of “the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1), when the Jew—Gentile barrier is broken down and the fully inclusive nature of the church is revealed.
To have Jesus deliberately adhere to traditional Jewish protocols in his engagement with the centurion in Capernaum allows for the dramatic build-up to this pivotal scene in Acts. We might note also that Luke omits the section of Mark (7:1–20) in which Jesus explicitly “declares all food clean” (7:19), which also points to the climactic intent in the Peter—Cornelius narrative. Leaving out that section of Mark ensures that Luke doesn’t spoil the impact of the later scene in Acts.
A later text, the Mishnah, from the 3rd century, states that “the houses of Gentiles are unclean” (m.Oholeth 18.7). However, it is not clear either that this dictum was in force in the time of Jesus, or that Jesus felt compelled to adhere to it as a sign of his keeping “pure” in terms of the holiness system of the day. Indeed, his later practice—paradoxically—is to share at table with tax collectors or sinful people, which indicates a willingness to breach the strong boundaries of that system. See https://johntsquires.com/2019/05/22/jesus-and-his-followers-at-table-in-lukes-orderly-account/
Only Luke reports that the centurion—a Gentile authority figure—had a relationship with the Jewish synagogue in Capernaum. Indeed, the Jewish elders give accolades to this man, stating that “he loves our people, it is he who built our synagogue for us” (7:5). That reveals an interesting relationship, positive and supportive, between a Gentile (the centurion) and the local Jewish community. So the barrier which Jesus allegedly maintains by not visiting the Gentile house is breached by the patronage (and, we presume, the visits) of a Gentile to a Jewish synagogue.
Gentile patronage of Jewish synagogues is known from outside the New Testament; an inscription found in Jerusalem, which is dated from before the fall of the Temple in 70CE, indicates that a certain Theodotus “built the synagogue for the reading of the law and the teaching of the commandments, and also the guest chamber and the upper rooms and the ritual pools of water for accommodating those needing them from abroad, which his fathers, the Elders and Simonides founded.” See https://www.worldhistory.biz/ancient-history/52996-the-theodotus-inscription.html
“Only speak the word”, the elders beg Jesus, “do not trouble yourself” to come all the way to the house (7:6–7). In this way, they maintain the protocols, and try to ensure that that Jesus is kept from defiling himself. This is an interesting positive perspective on the Jewish leadership—a positive assessment that Luke often provides. (See, for instance, how positively he depicts the Pharisees in various scenes: 7:36; 11:37; 13:31; 14:1; and also Acts 5:34; 23:9).
Jesus affirms the man with the words, “not even in Israel have I found such faith” (7:9). This affirmation is given also in the account of this incident in Matthew’s book of origins (Matt 8:10), but not in John’s version of the encounter.
In these words, Jesus sounds a theme which recurs in his subsequent affirmations of the faith of the woman who anointed his feet (Luke 7:50), the woman who had suffered from haemorrhages for twelve years (8:48), the returning Samaritan leper (17:19), and the blind man outside Jericho (18:42), all of whom were characters on the edge, or outside, the central purity group. These affirmations sit uncomfortably alongside Jesus’ recurring lament over the lack of faith of his own followers (8:25; 12:28; 17:5–6; and see also 18:8; 22:31–34).
It’s also noteworthy that the statement of judgement found at Matt 8:11–12, where the characteristic Matthean theme of judgement over the sinful people of Israel is found, is omitted from the Lukan version of the story—although Luke does include this saying in his orderly account at a later point (13:28–30), in the context of his lament over the fate that lies in store for Jerusalem (13:31–35). That different context gives it a narrower focus than the Matthean setting, in which appears to be a (typically Matthean) global condemnation of the people of Israel.
Luke ends this incident with a simple report that the slave was found to be well once again (7:10), as does Matthew (8:13).
The story that follows, recounting how Jesus raises from the dead the son of a widow in the town of Nain (7:11–17), is also a key passage. It also appears rarely in the three-yearly cycle of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. The fact that it narrates the raising of a person from the dead, yet is rarely heard in worship or preached on (in churches following the lectionary), is curious. After all, the story in John’s book of signs, about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, is very well-known and clearly entrenched in the regular lectionary cycle (see https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/25/holding-out-for-hope-in-the-midst-of-turmoil-john-11/)
I consider that the key point of this story is to establish Jesus as a prophet who enacts the visitation of God for the people of Israel (7:16). It is strange that the NRSV renders this statement as “God has looked favourably”, but it is the same verb (episkopeo) which appears at 19:44, where it is more accurately translated as “the time of your visitation from God”. And in that passage, Jesus comes to pronounce judgement up the sinful city.
It is clear that Jesus, by raising this man from the dead, demonstrates his credentials as a prophet, as the people cry that “a great prophet has risen among us!” (7:16)
The cry of the people also signals that the divine is drawing near to the people of Israel. It is curious that this story sits so deeply within the shadow cast by that other story of raising a man (Lazarus): from the dead. This is a striking and dramatic story, as is attested in the response of the people, of whom Luke reports, “fear seized all of them, and they glorified God” (7:16).
Fear (or better, awe) is the regular response in the presence of an angel (Zechariah, 1:12–13; Mary, 1:30; the shepherds, 2:10). It is also evoked by a miracle, as is seen in the responses of the neighbours of Zechariah and Elizabeth (1:65); Peter, James, and John after the huge catch of fish (5:10); the people of the Gerasene countryside (8:37); a messenger from the house of Jairus (8:50); and Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration (9:34). Fear is also, understandably, manifest before the divine activity in the days of distress when “the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (21:25–26) when the Son of Man appears in power and great glory (21:27).
This passage appears in Proper 5, for those years when Easter is early, and the season of Pentecost has additional Sundays. The earlier story, of the centurion and his slave in Capernaum, is also offered in Proper 4 (when Pentecost is in mid-May). They are great stories, worth considering, even if not scheduled in the regular cycle of lectionary readings.
This is the second post in a series offering a number of imaginary letters from the ancient world, only recently “discovered”. The letters, we might imagine, reflect what the recipient of the “orderly account of the things that have come to fulfilment” (what we know as the Gospel of Luke), the man named Theophilus, might have written to the author of that work, as he received sections of the “orderly account” in sequence.
I have continued to make mention of you in my prayers, and I trust that you are likewise remembering me.
I rejoice in the gift of writing which God has bestowed on you, for as I indicated to you in my earlier letter, I have been reading your narrative concerning Jesus. Once more I have dined in the house of Themistocles, and once more our discussion ranged over many matters concerning business and pleasure.
When we came, as I had anticipated, to the topic of ‘great men’ once more, I felt that I was better prepared. For I had read your narrative about Jesus—or, at least, I have read a goodly amount of it.
So I spoke a little more about Jesus. However, one of the company retorted that he had never heard of this Jesus, and that he was probably a figure made up by a clever author. At this point, I was able to reply that you had explicitly described your account of Jesus as a diegesin (Luke 1:3)—that is, as a narrative which has the appearance of being in historical form.
Indeed, as I have read your work, I have come to understand how you have presented your story about Jesus in the fashion familiar to us from those who have written accounts of the lives of great men in a history-like fashion, so lifelike and understandable was the character of Jesus whom you had depicted.
Hegestratus said that one should not presume that simply because a work was described as a diegesin, that it could be accounted worthy of belief, since there were often too many paradoxa, too many strange things, which strained credulity in such works.
Another diner, Apollonius, disagreed, arguing that the inclusion of such sections performed the good function of forcing the hearers to decide for themselves just what they thought about it.
Indeed, this is precisely the effect that your work has had on me. It is fair to say that I did know the basic story of Jesus. You had talked with me about it, and of course I had been present at gatherings where one or another had spoken about the deeds of Jesus, or repeated and explained some of his words, while we met, as we often did, at table in the house of Nikias, as well as with my own household from time to time.
But I have to say, with admiration, that your account has provided me with many more details, some of which I suppose I might have heard, but most of which I have clearly not remembered.
You have also presented the particular incidents in an overall framework which I assume you have supplied in the course of your writing. As you yourself wrote, you knew various incidents and happenings relating to Jesus from those who had previously written about them, but you have cast them into a narrative of ‘an orderly account’ (Luke 1:3). For this, I am most grateful.
I now sense that what you have done is to provide me with a collection of stories about Jesus which I myself can learn and retell. They form a basis for my own thinking and talking about issues, using the stories about Jesus, but allowing me to appropriate them for myself, in relation to my own needs.
I trust that this is what I may be able to do, should there be occasion in future gatherings with my host and the highly enjoyable company which he always seems able to draw together for the meals in his house.
I hope also that I might be able to keep a clear head, for after many hours of talking, interspersed with drinking from the amphoras of good wine which he provides us, it is sometimes difficult to think with precision!
Give my greetings to Staphys, and Nikia, and to my own household. I intend not to be away too long this time! I hope to hear from you, as you are able to put pen to papyrus in reply.
I pray that you may keep well.
Question for discussion: What do you think that Theophilus meant, in this letter, by ‘history’? Is it the same as what you mean by this term? If not, how might it be different?
“You must be perfect”, Jesus instructs (Matt 5:48). Or, in the version Luke reports, “you must be merciful” (Luke 6:36). Whatever versions you prefer, both of them cite, as the model to be followed and aspired towards, “your Father” (meaning, of course, God).
How can we aspire to be precisely as God is? Well, that’s what Jesus instructs his earliest followers (and through them, us, today). So, what is God like? Perfect? Or Merciful?
Jesus, according to the tradition reflected in the Gospels, chose a group of his followers to form a core group of inner disciples (Luke 6:1–4; compare Mark 3:14–19, Matt 10:1–4, and Acts 1:23–14; and see also the reference to “the twelve”, unnamed, in John 6:66–71).
Admittedly, those named are all males (although the precise names vary a little between the various listings), which in itself contradicts the clear indication that women were at the very centre of those who followed Jesus from the start (Mark 15:40–41; Matt 27:55–56; Luke 23:49) and, indeed, that a group of women provided material support for Jesus from early on (Luke 8:1–3). But in a strongly patriarchal context, what else (sigh) might we expect?
It was, perhaps, to this inner group that Jesus spoke—although the setting for the teaching provided in Matt 5:48 is simply “his disciples” atop the mountain (Matt 5:1). “The twelve” were yet to be identified by name in Matthew; and besides, by the end of this lengthy discourse of teachings which Matthew has collated together (and which we now call The Sermon on the Mount), “the crowds” had gathered, listening in; for Matthew affirms that “the crowds were astounded at his teaching” (Matt 7:28).
That’s the setting for the admonition to “be perfect”. Jesus seems to be advocating that his inner group of followers demonstrate their scrupulous adherence to the Jewish Torah—indeed, he has advocated this a little earlier (at 5:17–20), with the implication (as we read this in English) that he is seeking absolutely perfect adherence to every single tiny detail of the Torah. That’s a large demand!
However, the basic sense of the word translated as “perfect” (teleios) is not so much scrupulous adherence to minute details, but rather that of moving to a state of fulfilment, completion, or wholeness. It is used five times in Matthew’s book of origins to indicate that Jesus has completed a discrete section of teaching (Matt 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). It is used in other Gospels to signal ways in which Jesus brings scriptural texts to fulfilment (Luke 18:31; 22:37; John 19:28; and see Luke 1:45).
In Matthew’s narrative, it even has the sense of the present age coming to an end (Matt 10:22; 24:6, 14)—a completion, or fulfilment, not simply in the ending of the present age, but in the ushering in of the new age. That may well be the force intended by the authorities of the fourth Gospel, when the dying Jesus utters the phrase tetelestai, “it is finished”, or better, “it is now fully accomplished” (John 19:30).
Perhaps its most controversial occurrence is at Rom 10:4, where Paul indicates that Christ is the telos of the law: does this infer “end as as abolition” (an unsatisfactory supercessionist reading), or (as I prefer) “end as in bringing to the height of fulfilment”? This accords with the use of the term in Pauline texts, where teleioi is used to refer to those with spiritual maturity (1 Cor 14:20; Phil 3:12, 15; Col 1:28; Eph 4:13). It is perhaps similar to the meaning in Hebrews, in the claim that Jesus is the means of offering a perfect sacrifice (Heb 2:10; 5:9) through which we are perfected (teteleiōken, Heb 10:14).
Thus, by using this rich theological term at 5:48, Matthew has Jesus indicate that those who follow him should be oriented towards being wholly and completely fulfilled as his followers, in the way that God is complete and whole in God’s own being.
Indeed, the clearest indication of what this state would look like, for his followers, is given in the conversation that Jesus later has with a young man who claims that he has, most assuredly, kept the commandments (19:16–20). What more does he need to do? he wonders. Jesus replies, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (19:21). Understandably, we are told that “when the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (19:22).
In Luke’s orderly account, by contrast, Jesus delivers his instruction to “be merciful” on “a level place”, amidst a crowd of people “from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon” (6:17) who are desperately seeking some measure of that mercy from Jesus himself, as they “were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them” (6:19).
The time that Jesus had recently spent on top of a mountain in Luke’s narrative had been personal, perhaps even private, devoted to all-night prayer (Luke 6:12) and the designation of those twelve disciples “whom he also named apostles” (6:13). These teachings, “on a level place”, were given amidst the curiosity and noise and anxious pressings to be healed of “a great multitude … all trying to touch him” (6:17, 19).
Jesus confronts this crowd with a series of provocative instructions in a section known as the sermon on the plain. After asserting that God blesses the poor, those who hunger and grieve, and brings woe upon the rich, those who are filled with food and laughter (6:20–26), he goes on to instruct them, not just to “love your neighbour” (as he later states, at 10:27, clearly drawing on Lev 19:18), but more than that, to “love your enemies” (6:27, 35).
Luke’s account stands in contrast to his teaching in the Gospel we attribute to Matthew, where Jesus exhorts his disciples to “be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48). The instruction to keep every one of “the least of these commandments”, following every letter, indeed every stroke of every letter (5:18–19) is completely absent in Luke’s narrative. (The isolated saying of Luke 16:16–17 perhaps comes close to this perspective.)
By contrast, the Lukan account has Jesus instructing the crowds to “be merciful, just as your father is merciful” (Luke 6:36, in the NRSV translation). What does he mean by this instruction? I believe that he wants the crowds to “show deep, empathic compassion, just as your father shows this deep, empathic compassion” (my own translation). For the Greek word employed at 6:36 is an unusual word.
The Lukan Jesus does not use the regular word for “mercy”, eleos, which appears 26 times in the New Testament (along with 29 occurrences of its cognate verb, eleeō). This is the usual NT translation for the Hebrew word for “mercy” (see Matt 9:13, quoting Hosea 6:6). It’s a word that has a sense of care for the other, as reflected in the Torah provisions of Lev 19:33-34, for instance.
Here, the word is oiktirmōn, a word which is rare in the NT but used regularly in the Septuagint to translate that quality of God which demonstrates deep, compassionate, empathic concern for the other. And this quality of relating in a way that attempts to “get right inside the skin” of the other person, is to behave in a way that is entirely and thoroughly counter-cultural.
People in the first century Mediterranean world were governed by the cultural patterns of patron-client relationships, where benefaction by the greater to the lesser was balanced by obligations that the lesser had towards the greater. Jesus assumes this way of operating in a number of his parables and teachings (such as Matt 18:23–35; Luke 11:11–12; 14:12; 19:11–27); it was the common cultural practice of ancient society (see a helpful discussion of this system at https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ashland_theological_journal/31-1_032.pdf).
But not here, in the Lukan account of teachings spoken by Jesus (Luke 6:36). Here, the expectation is for giving without expectation of return. Acting without anticipation of the obligatory response. Compassionate care, offered and given wholly for the sake of the other, not with any expectation of gaining something in response. That is the focus for the Lukan Jesus.
And that is most surely just as deeply penetrating, just as all-consuming, and just as strongly confronting, as the Matthean demand to “be perfect”. Whichever version we prefer, we are facing a momentous challenge!
This is the first post in a series of posts offering imaginary letters from the ancient world, only recently “discovered”. The letters, we might imagine, could reflect what the recipient of the “orderly account of the things that have come to fulfilment ” (what we know as the Gospel of Luke), the man named Theophilus, wrote to the author of that work, as he received sections of the “orderly account” in sequence.
Theophilus is away on a business trip. He writes home to Luke, telling of what happens as he reads Luke’s narrative and shares it with others. You will need to be prepared to engage in an act of imagination, which will transport you across the centuries into another time and place.
And so, imagine …
Theophilus to Luke, greetings. Before all else, I wish that you are well, and that you are applying yourself to the tasks of writing that are before you.
I make prayers on your behalf to our Lord God, praying that you may continue to enjoy good health. Now that I have arrived in Antioch, and have found someone who is travelling back to Achaia, I have entrusted this letter to him. I hope that you will be able to write back to me, about your health, and about the health of our brothers and sisters in Achaia.
I am writing to you to report that I have now, at last, been able to find time to read the narrative which you delivered to me just before my departure from Achaia. After sailing across the Aegean to Ephesus, I have travelled along the common way to Laodicea, and now to Antioch, where I have lodged in the house of Themistocles whilst I conduct my business in this city.
In fact, whilst we were reclining at table just two nights ago, some matters arose in conversation which reminded me of the task which I had promised you that I would undertake whilst on this journey.
Our table talk covered many matters. The price of grain was, as usual, the matter to which the company first turned its attention. Then, one of the group spoke of the new trade opportunities that have been reported from a merchant who has just returned here from an eastern trip. Quite some time was spent in hearing the details of a scandal which has just erupted, concerning two of the servants of a local merchant here in Antioch.
The rather appalling state of the produce seen in the marketplace each day was also canvassed, as was the welcome news that the maritime trade season has just now begun, having been delayed some two weeks because of the unseasonable winds on the Aegean Sea. We all agreed that this should lead to an improvement in the marketplace produce within the week.
Incidentally, you must remind me to tell you of the scandal surrounding the two servants; I do not wish to be distracted by it at the moment, but I am certain that you will find it to be entertaining when I recount it to you face to face. I recall with fondness your own ability when it comes to storytelling, and I can only hope that I will live up to your best expectations when I have the opportunity to tell you this rather sordid tale. I know that you have an ear for tales of striking dramatic effect, and so I would be pleased to add this to your collection.
At any rate, as you might imagine, it was only a matter of time before our conversation happened to venture onto a more elevated plane. The opportunity for good table talk, such as was valued by a number of our company, was too valuable to be squandered on boring business details spiced with licentious scandal mongering, for the whole of the evening. And so we found ourselves engaged in a discussion concerning some of the great men from before our times.
One of my companions spoke about the virtues of Romulus, famed for his role in the founding of the city of Rome. None dare speak ill of the Romans at this time, of course; but at the time when the city was founded, it was, so it seems, a little place of no repute. Romulus is rightly honoured for his great deeds: he is the father of a widespread, if not widely-loved, empire.
Another at table with me spoke of the great Alexander, whose soldiers once marched not far from here, so I am told, as they ventured east to conquer many new lands. Rightly is Alexander endowed with the title ‘great’, for such were his deeds.
And yet another who was present with us spoke in exalted tones of Pythagoras, the famous teacher and philosopher, who performed no great deeds save that he taught of the mysteries of numbers, sounds, and ideas. It may perhaps be that his impact will be far greater than that of the other two, although it would have been a brave man to declare that in the company of those at table with me two nights back.
However, such conversation did embolden me to speak, for just a short while, of the man Jesus, about whom you have written so eloquently in your narrative which you have vouchsafed to me. If the truth be told, it was this moment in the discussion that reminded me of your work, of which I had read but two or three portions some days before the meal, but which now I have determined to read through consecutively, until I arrive at the ending. And so it was that I spoke about Jesus to my dinner companions.
As I did so, I recalled what you had written about the birth of Jesus: how strange, portentous happenings took place before and immediately after he was born. For I recall that you wrote about how the man Zechariah was struck dumb (Luke 1:19–22); and how Elizabeth conceived when everyone expected that she was well past her time (1:24–25); and then how Zechariah was able to speak (1:59–66). And you wrote also about how Mary conceived in strange, inexplicable circumstances, which you described as the spirit of holiness which overshadowed Mary (1:35).
And I recalled more clearly your words about how the angel spoke to Zechariah (1:8–20), and then to Mary (1:27–38), and still later to the shepherds (2:8–14). Indeed, these things reminded me of what I once read concerning the great Alexander—how his conception in the womb of Olympias had been announced to her in a dream in which a thunderbolt struck her womb, and then how Philip, the boy’s father, dreamed of how he sealed up the womb.
And I also recall reading how the priestess of the oracle at Delphi predicted how invincible the boy would be once he was born, and how the temple of Artemis was burnt to the ground on the very day that the child was born. Such amazing events took place in association with his birth!
This recollection gave me courage, then, to speak of Jesus during the table talk; for surely similar amazing things took place in association with his birth. But one of my companions objected in the strongest terms—what great things did this Jesus do? he asked. I recall now that you wrote about the prophecy that ‘he would be called great’ (Luke 1:32); I lament the fact that I was not quick-witted enough to speak of this at the meal itself.
At any rate, I told the company of how he spoke great things—like Pythagoras, like Epicurus, like Socrates even—things which help us to know how to live life and what choices to make when confronted with dilemmas in life.
As I spoke, it became clear to me that I had not remembered very well the things which you had told me, when we were speaking about your writing project at the time when I was with still you. And so, I was especially glad that I had brought your manuscript with me, and I have determined to make good use of my time away, so that I might read and understand the things which have been fulfilled amongst us, as you so eloquently describe them.
Give my greetings to the members of my household, and please assure my beloved wife that the requests she made for goods that I was to bring back with me have not been forgotten. I believe that it will be some time before my business here is concluded, and so I will write directly to her in good time; but it will please the gods if you are able to convey this message to her. Give greetings also to Staphys, and to the household of Nikias, and those who lodge with him.
I pray that you may keep well.
Questions for discussion: do you think that it is reasonable to interpret the “signs and wonders” of Luke 1–2 not as historical occurrences, but as symbols which are pointers to the significance of Jesus? Are such ‘miracles’ (paradoxa) and ‘portents’ (to which Theophilus refers in this letter) something that we expect in histories today?
The lectionary Gospel for last Sunday and this coming Sunday provides a collection of a number of pithy teachings spoken by Jesus, which are collated as one continuous speech in Luke’s orderly account (Luke 6:20–49). It contains much material that is very similar to material found in a much longer another collection of teachings of Jesus that is reported in Matthew’s book of origins (Matt 5:1–7:29).
This section of Matthew is usually called the Sermon on the Mount, because that is the setting noted: “Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them” (Matt 5:1–2). Interestingly, at the end of this section, the author concludes by noting that “when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching” (7:28). What started as teaching given to the disciples ended as a speech delivered to the crowds.
In Luke’s account, by contrast, Jesus has been on the mountain the previous night, praying, and then identifying the twelve men who would form his inner group (Luke 6:12–16). Jesus then comes down the mountain and begins to teach: “he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon” (6:17). Thus, Luke’s report is often called the Sermon on the Plain. See
Despite the difference in setting, the two sections of Gospels seem to reflect the same set of teachings overall—although there is much more included in Matthew’s sermon, than in Luke’s. Matthew follows his version of the Beatitudes (5:1–12) with sayings about the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” (5:13–16).
Matthew then has a distinctive section in which Jesus affirms every letter of the law and the prophets (5:17–20), followed by a set of Antitheses in which Jesus provides a sharpened and focussed interpretation of six laws (5:21–48). This section of his book of origins is critical,y important for depicting Jesus as a teacher in the tradition of Moses—indeed, as The Teacher of Torah, who takes all of the laws of Moses and interprets them in ways that sharpen their demands and intensify their focus. See
Then follows a section of teachings about prayer, fasting and almsgiving (6:1–18), not found in Luke; this includes the Lord’s Prayer (6:9–13), which Luke reports in a much shorter version, located a different place in his narrative (Luke 11:1–4). Once again, this section locates the teachings,of Jesus in the context of the Judaism of his time; see
Much of what follows in Matt 6:19—7:27 is also found in Luke’ orderly account; many parts in Luke 6:37-49, but some sections in chapters 11, 12 and 13 of Luke. Perhaps these are typical teachings of Jesus, which are reported in different contexts and in different combinations, depending on the choice of the author of each Gospel?
We have explore the blessings—and woes—which Luke reports in the opening section of his sermon; see
What do you make of these three blessings and three woes? How do they guide you as you seek to live as a faithful disciple of Jesus? What blessing, or woe, is uppermost in your mind as you read these words?
In the Torah, God instructs the people of Israel to pray each day, to “love the Lord your God” (Deut 6:5). Jesus quotes this prayer, and adds beside a second injunction, from Lev 19:18, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:28–31). The author of the book of signs reworks this, to have Jesus narrow this command to the inner group “a new commandment: that you love one another” (John 13:34).
However, both Luke and Matthew report a different version of the love command, in which Jesus broadens the scope quite extensively: “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27; Matt 5:44). Luke follows this with further challenging instructions: “do good to those who hate, you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28; cf. Matt 5:44).
How do you respond to these instructions of Jesus? Are these meant to be implemented in our lives? or are they hopes expressing what life will be like ‘in the kingdom of God’?
Some years ago (as a centenary recollection of the end of World War I), Elizabeth and I attended a conference on Peacemaking. One of the speakers we heard talked about the place of forgiveness in the process of making peace: “Forgiveness is important, but can’t be imposed. Forgiveness begins with Repentance, and won’t be realised unless that is genuinely offered.” See https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/11/blessed-are-the-peacemakers/
Jesus knew the importance of forgiveness. He instructs his followers to pray, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (Luke 11:4). Once he tells his followers to forgive someone who sins against them (Luke 17:3–4).
In another version of this teaching, he intensifies it by ramping it up to “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matt 18:22), telling a parable of judgement about an unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23–35). One of his final words to his followers when he appears to them (in the book of signs) is, “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23).
How easy do you find it, to forgive someone who has wronged you? What happens inside you if you can’t forgive someone? What do we hope to happen, for us, and for others, as we pray the line about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer?
What follows from the teachings about loving enemies and being merciful in Luke’s version of the sermon are closing paragraphs about not judging others (6:37–42), including the well-known saying about the speck in another’s eye and the log in one’s own eye ( 6:41-42), a reference to bearing good fruit (6:43–44), producing treasure from one’s heart (6:45), and not obeying these teachings (6:46). The last saying leads into the closing story, of the house built on rock and the house built “without a foundation” (6:47–49).
These sayings don’t appear in the lectionary this year; they only occur when Easter is late, and thus Epiphany is longer, providing an eighth Sunday in Epiphany. (Likewise, the important story of the healing of the centurion’s son in Luke 7:1–10 occurs only when there is a ninth Sunday in Epiphany 😢)
These sayings all appear in Matthew’s version of the story, told with some variations: do not judge (7:1–5); produce good fruit (7:16–20); and obey the teaching of Jesus (7:21, 24–27). The two sermons run parallel for quite some time with these common sections,
However, we find within Matthew’s sermon various teachings which Luke reports in later chapters of his narrative: “do not lay up treasures on earth” (6:19–21, see Luke 12:33–34); “the eye is the lamp of the body” (6:22–23; see Luke 11:34–36); “you cannot serve God and Mammon” (6:24; see Luke 6:13); “do not be anxious” (6:25–34, see Luke 12:22–31); the threefold “ask, seek, and knock” (7:7–11, see Luke 11:9–13); “the narrow gate” (7:13–14, see Luke 13:23–24); and the saying “depart from me, you lawless ones” (7:23, see Luke 13:26–27).
Found only in Matthew, and nowhere in Luke, are sayings about throwing pearls before swine (7:6) and about false prophets in sheep’s clothing (7:15–16). Clearly, virtually the whole of the content of chapters 6 and 7 of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount was known to Luke, but if he chose to distribute a number of the sayings in these chapters to other places in his orderly account.
Did Luke have access to Matthew’s construction of the sermon, and choose to remove various elements to other places in his story? Or did Matthew and Luke both have access to a common source (the hypothetical sayings-source, Q), which they each used in independent ways? Although, if the latter, perhaps the teachings already collated by Luke and Mark in the same order existed like that in this earlier oral (or perhaps written) source?
My own preference is for the latter option. I don’t think it is reasonable to hypothesise that Luke might have had access to Matthew’s sermon, and chose to shorten it and disburse various elements elsewhere in his orderly account. I do think it reasonable to hypothesise that the Q material is the most likely source (and that it existed, by analogy with the Gospel of Thomas, which we do have, and which simply contains a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, with no evident linking between sections).
All of which means that I accept the proposal that much of Jesus’ teaching was remembered, and passed down, as independent oral accounts, which were collated in various ways by various authors at various points in time in different locations. And so, how Luke presents this sermon on the plain is deliberate and consistent with his overall theology.
It is a long-standing Jewish custom to express gratitude by praying using a standard blessing form. Blessings over a meal, as a meeting commences, at key moments of life transition, at the start of the sabbath-eve meal and in the regular sabbath worship, on the anniversary of a death—all of these moments, and many more, are marked with a blessing, a way of giving thanks to God for that precise moment.
The blessing has a standard form. It is addressed to God, and always begins by blessing God for the experience that is about to be shared: baruch atah adonai elohenu, melech ha-olam, which translates as “Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe …”
After this introductory formula—always spoken or prayed in the same way—the reason for blessing God is then given: baruch atah adonai elohenu, melech ha-olam, borei p’ri hagafen (Amein), “God who creates the fruit of the vine (Amen)”. This, of course, is said before drinking wine.
Or, baruch attah adonai elohenu, melech ha-olam, borei m’orei ha’eish (Amein), “God who creates the light of the fire (Amen)”; said before candles are lit.
There are different blessings for different categories of food: bread (“… who brings forth bread out of the ground”); grain products that are not defined as bread (“… who creates different kinds of sustenance”); wine (“… who creates the fruit of the vine”); fruit (“… who creates the fruit of the tree”); vegetables (“… who creates the fruit of the ground”); and everything else (“… from whose word all came into being”).
We see Jesus enacting this traditional Jewish practice of blessing food before eating when he feeds the crowds (Mark 6:41 and pars), at his last meal with his followers (Mark 14:22 and pars), and when he arrived at Emmaus with the two travellers on the road (Luke 24:30): “when he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”
Earlier in Luke’s orderly account, when Zechariah the priest recovered his voice after the birth of his son, John the baptiser, the first phrase he uttered was a blessing: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them” (Luke 1:68).
Earlier, when the pregnant Elizabeth meets Mary, she is prompted by the leaping of the child in her womb and “she was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’” (Luke 1:42). After his birth, when the infant Jesus is brought to the temple to be dedicated, the wise prophet Simeon, also filled with the Spirit, blesses him (Luke 2:25, 34).
Paul follows this traditional Jewish pattern at the start of his second letter to the Corinthians. Instead of starting with his typical prayer (“I give thanks to God for you, constantly remembering you in my prayers …”), he says here: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction” (2 Cor 1:3–4a).
The same pattern is found at the start of later letters; in that of a disciple of Paul, to the Ephesians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3); and in a letter attributed to Peter: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3).
Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Jesus, Paul, the Pauline disciple, and the disciple of Peter, each follow standard Jewish practice as they pray their blessings in this way.
In Hebrew Scripture, there are also blessings which God declares over people or creatures or moments. God’s never-ending sequence of blessings begins in the story of creation: on the fifth “day”, God blesses the sea creatures and birds (Gen 1:22). On the sixth “day”, he blesses humanity: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply … and have dominion …’” (Gen 1:28). This blessing of humanity is an expression of being in favour or relationship with God, and brings with it key responsibilities in terms of humanity’s relationship with the world.
Blessing often signifies being protected by, and provided for, by God. We see this in the blessing on Noah: “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1). We hear it when Boaz came out from Bethlehem to visit his field, where Ruth was gleaning at the edges of the field while those he employed were reaping the harvest. Boaz said to the reapers, “The LORD be with you!”, and they dutifully replied, “The LORD bless you” (Ruth 2:4).
And the Psalmist offers a prayer inviting God to bless us: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you. May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him” (Ps 67:1, 3, 7).
Of course, there are phrases in that psalm that are familiar to us from a most beloved passage in a little-read book from the Torah. This text, short and simple, is the text which exists in a scroll which is dated as the oldest extant Bible scroll—the second, silver, Ketef Hinnom scroll, which was created around 600 BCE. The words of this text are even older still, taking us back into the origins of Israelite faith, the precursor of Judaism, and then Christianity.
That text, of course, offers a fulsome blessing, which Aaron the priest is instructed to speak over the people of Israel: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Num 6:24–26).
Jesus follows this traditional pattern, of offering a blessing in the name of God, to those who merit such a blessing. When his disciples hindered children from coming to him, Jesus “took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them “(Mark 10:16).
Matthew tells of the response that Jesus gave when Peter declared him to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”; Jesus replies, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (Matt 16:16–17). John informs us that Jesus blessed those who follow the example of Jesus (John 13:17) and then, when he appears to the disciples, including Thomas, he states, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).
Luke reports Jesus as blessing his disciples (Luke 10:23), “those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (11:28), slaves who are alert at night (12:37, 38, 43), and those who “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13–14). In an enigmatic scene recounted only by Luke, Jesus turns to “the daughters of Jerusalem” as he walks to his death, declaring “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed” (23:29).
It is, of course, the blessings of Jesus which we know by their Latin term, the Beatitudes, which are best known. There are nine such blessings collected at the start of the Sermon on Mount (Matt 5:3–12), and a collection of four of these blessings in Luke’s account of the sermon which Jesus gave on the plain (Luke 6:20–23).
Immediately, in counterpoint to these four blessings, Luke reports four curses, or woes (Luke 6:24–26). Matthew, by contrast, holds his series of seven curses, or woes, to the last collated set of teachings of Jesus (Matt 23:13–32). Such curses, or woes, are found in many places in the prophetic books, as the prophets railed against the nations around Israel and the people within Israel. A set of curses, or woes, also appears in Deut 28:15–24, as the farewell speech of Moses is reported. (A series of blessings come later, in Deut 33.)
So the blessings heard in the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday show that Jesus lived and spoke firmly within the long-established traditions of Israel; traditions that continue today to have a vibrant life in contemporary Judaism.