Descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1; Advent 4A)

In the selection from Paul’s letter to the Romans that is offered by this Sunday’s lectionary, Paul refers explicitly to the gospel concerning [God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1:3). In the midst of the Christmas carols and Christmas cake, the Christmas cards and the Christmas parties, there stands this stark affirmation: Jesus was a Jew. And, more specifically, that Jesus was a descendant of David.

It is noteworthy that Paul makes very little reference in his letters to the earthly life of Jesus; he is much more focussed on the death and the resurrection of Jesus, rather than his life of teaching, preaching, story-telling and miracle-working. In his letter to the Galatians, however, he makes a similar affirmation about the humanity, and the Jewishness, of Jesus: when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law (Gal 4:4).

Descended from David, born under the law: Jesus was clearly a Jew. That needs to sit at the heart of the story that we recall each year at this time. The Jewishness of Jesus is an essential element of the Christmas story.

Those who recount the story of Jesus, in the documents we know as the Gospels of the New Testament, are clear about this fact. Mark locates Jesus in Galilee, the northern part of the land of Israel, and identifies his home town as Nazareth (Mark 1:9; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6). Matthew and Luke follow the pattern established by Mark, in locating the vast majority of the activity of the adult Jesus in the northern regions of Israel.

Matthew intensifies this picture, however. At the start of his book of origins, he traces the lineage of Jesus back to David, and further back to Abraham (Matt 1:1-17). He traces this lineage of Jesus, not through his mother, Mary, but through Joseph—because it was Joseph who was of the lineage of David. This Davidic heritage of Jesus is central and important for Matthew, for he, most of all the evangelists, has characters in the story address Jesus as “Son of David” (1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:24; 15:22; 20:30–31; 21:9, 15, 42). He wants to advocate, as he tells his story, that it is through Jesus that the ancient promises to David will come to fruition.

At the start of his story, and at various places further on, Matthew notes that the actions and words of Jesus occur as fulfilment of prophetic words (Matt 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23; 3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9).

Twice in his account of Jesus, Matthew is insistent that his active ministry and that of his first followers took place only amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:6; 15:24). For Matthew, Jesus was resolutely, scrupulously, Jewish.

The Gospel of John also reinforces the Jewish identity of Jesus. The Samaritan woman describes Jesus as “a Jew” (John 4:9), Jesus regularly travels to Jerusalem for Jewish festivals (John 2:13, 6:4, 7:1-10, 10:22, 12:12, 13:1), in conformity with Jewish piety. When Pilate questions Jesus, he recognises him as King of the Jews (18:33-35) and refers Jesus to Jewish leaders for their decision (18:31, 19:6-7, 19:14). Pilate then has him crucified under a sign identifying him as “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (as, indeed, the other three Gospels also report).

In the Gospel of Luke, the Jewish identity of Jesus is recounted, repeated, and intensified. Although often touted as the evangelist who most strongly orients the story of Jesus towards Gentiles throughout the hellenistic world of the Roman Empire, Luke actually sets his orderly account in the heart of Jewish piety, from the very opening scene of the Gospel which reveals a pair of righteous Jews who faithfully keep the commandments of God (Luke 1:5–6).

The man, Zechariah, is devoted to the service of God in the Temple (1:8–9). His wife, Elizabeth, expresses an attitude of deep faith in God, accepting her surprise pregnancy as “what the Lord has done for me” (1:25). Her relative, Mary, demonstrates a similar faith as she submits to a similar fate with the words, “here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38).

In turn, the traditional hopes and expectations of the people are articulated in spirit-inspired hymns sung by Mary (1:46–55), Zechariah (1:67–79) and Simeon the righteous (2:29–32). These are, by rights, the first Christmas carols—songs which sing of the one to come, which tell of the birth of one promised, which look with hope to the change he will effect. And they are resolutely Jewish.

The children whose births are recounted in these early chapters of Luke—Jesus and his cousin John—bear the weight of traditional Jewish hopes and expectations as they come into being. They are born as faithful Jews. They both lived in fidelity to the Jewish law. The mission of Jesus to fulfil the hopes articulated by Jewish prophets (Luke 4:18-21) and to point to the promise of the kingdom ruled by God (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17) which, he proclaimed, was already becoming a reality in his own time (Luke 17:20).

The sense of deeply devoted and strongly conventional Jewish piety continues in the reports of the early years of Jesus. Luke’s Gospel reports that Jesus was circumcised (2:21) and dedicated in the Temple (2:22–24) in accordance with Jewish custom, and that he showed an early interest in the Law (2:41–51).

So we would do well not to skirt away from this very particular and specific aspect of the Christmas story.

As we come to the celebration of the child in the manger, let us remember that he spoke with a voice that called people—his people in Israel, and people beyond his people—to the enticing vision (sourced from the Hebrew prophets) of a world renewed and reconciled, where righteousness and justice were realities, where the hopes of Israel could flourish and come to fruition. That is the thoroughly Jewish vision that the story of Jesus offers.

…….

The featured picture portrays a Judean man from Jesus’s time, based on archaeological findings, and is often used as an image for what the historical Jesus may have looked like.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/

Personal notes from Paul (II): Luke and John Mark (2 Tim 4; Pentecost 20C)

The second letter in the New Testament that is addressed to Timothy presents a scenario that sees Paul in prison (1:8; 2:9), where he is in contact with a group otherwise unknown from his letters—Phygelus and Hermogenes (1:15), Crescens (4:10), Carpus (4:13), Eubulus, Pudens, Linus and Claudia (4:21)—as well as with others known from letters of Paul and/or that narrative of Acts—Onesiphorus (1:16), Demas and Titus (4:10), Luke and Mark (4:11), Tychicus (4:12), Prisca and Aquila (4:19), Erastus (4:20), Trophimus (4:20), and Timothy himself (1:2).

We have already considered a number of these people connected with Paul; see https://johntsquires.com/2022/10/19/personal-notes-from-paul-i-timothy-and-titus-demas-and-crescens-2-tim-4-pentecost-20c/

In this post, we encounter two figures who are well-known in Christian history—because their names have been attached to two of the four Gospels that are included in the New Testament.

Luke

The author appears to have been a part of a larger group of co-workers, now somewhat diminished; “only Luke is with me” (4:11). There are two other mentions of Luke in Pauline material. One comes at the end of the personal letter to Philemon: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers” (Phlm 23–24). So Luke was a real historical figure, and a fellow worker alongside Paul at some stage.

The other is in the letter to the Colossians, where the writer reports that “Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you” (Col 4:14). This short note appears in a longer concluding section (Col 4:10–18) which shares many qualities with 2 Tim 4:9–22, since a number of individuals are identified as a way of strengthening relationships across the communities of faith as a way to conclude the letter.

The Colossians description of Luke as “the beloved physician” was swiftly adopted in the developing second century apologetic which sought to identify each of the four canonical Gospels with figures in the apostolic age. Matthew and John were attributed to individuals named within “the twelve”, whilst Mark was associated with Peter, another of “the twelve”. (Outside the canon, the same apologetic move is undertaken in relation to the Letter of Barnabas; similar apologetic claims are placed in opening verse of the Gospel of Thomas.)

The third Gospel was linked with Paul through the purported author, “Luke, the beloved physician, companion of Paul”—a description which collates the mentions of Luke in Philemon, Colossians, and 2 Timothy, into one person, claimed (with no supporting evidence in the actual manuscript texts) to have been the author of “the orderly account of the things being fulfilled” which was addressed to “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:1–4).

The authorship of Colossians is debated; I see this as a letter written by a student of Paul after his life, evoking many of his ideas and using much of his familiar language, although reworked for the different context that was in view in that letter. (Others claim it as an authentic letter of the historical Paul). The description of Luke as a physician is thus, in my view, later than Paul’s time. Likewise, the notion that Luke, the companion of Paul, is reflected in the “we passages” in Acts, is based on a misreading of the purpose of those passages.

John Mark

Alongside Luke, the letter mentions Mark: “get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry” (4:11). The figure of Mark appears at various places in other New Testament documents. In Acts, where he is introduced as John Mark, he is accompanying Barnabas and Saul (as he was then known) as they return to Jerusalem (Acts 12:25) after the year they have spent in Antioch (Acts 11:25–26).

Some time later, we are told, after a meeting in Jerusalem concerning preaching activity amongst the Gentiles (Acts 15:1–36), as Paul invites Barnabas to revisit the places they had been previously, “Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark” (15:37), but Paul disagreed. “Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work” (15:38). This refers to the fact that John Mark left them in Perga, before they went on to Antioch in Pisidia (13:13–14).

“The disagreement became so sharp”, the author of Acts reports, “that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus; Paul chose Silas and set out” through Syria and Cilicia (15:41), and eventually across into Macedonia (16:9-10). Why John Mark had decided to leave the group in Perga is never explained. Presumably Barnabas and Mark were active in Cyprus and other places, not reported in Acts.

Two documents dated to the 5th and 6th centuries respectively, the Acts of Barnabas and the Encomium of the Apostle St. Barnabas, do pick up from Acts 13:14, recounting the missionary journey and indeed the martyrdom of Barnabas in Cyprus. In the Encomium, John Mark continues on from Cyprus to Ephesus, and eventually writes the second Gospel. But none of this is evident in any New Testament text.

In both Philemon (1:24) and Colossians (4:10), Mark is mentioned along with Aristarchus; the latter reference identifies Aristarchus as “my fellow prisoner” and Mark as “the cousin of Barnabas” (4:10). Whatever breach had occurred between Paul and Mark appears not to have been enduring, as the directive to the Colossians concerning Mark is, “if he comes to you, welcome him”.

Mark is also mentioned at the end of the first letter attributed to Peter, where greetings are sent to “the exiles of the dispersion” from “your sister church in Babylon … and my son Mark” (1 Pet 5:13). The relationship evident here between Peter and Mark seems to have contributed to the second century perception, attributed to Papias of Heirapolis, who in turn claimed that “John the Elder … in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory—though not in an ordered form—of the things either said or done by the Lord” (quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea in his Ecclestiastical History 3.39).

*****

still more to come … … …