As I have written in two recent posts, the biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus are not actual history. They are stories told to indicate the special nature of Jesus. Which means, we shouldn’t read them as history (ἱστορία). The Christmas story isn’t history. The Christmas story is myth (μῦθος).
As myth, the story points to important truths. It orients us to the claim that God is involved in human history. It sets the foundations for hearing the narratives about Jesus as accounts which resonate with God’s intentions for humanity.
The stories told at Christmas are located in specific human situations, and point to specific human needs. Outsiders and outcasts are included in the story told by Luke. Shepherds, despised for their work and marginalised from society, appear front and centre in his story. Strangers travel from distant foreign lands in Matthew’s narrative, bearing gifts to pay homage to the infant Jesus.
Women, not men, play central roles in the opening chapters of Luke’s story. Elizabeth, cursed as barren, blossoms into pregnancy, and speaks where her husband is struck dumb. Mary, young and virginal, receives startling news from an angel; she holds her own stands up to the angel, commits to the task, and then sings powerful words of justice, signalling in advance the revolutionary message that will be spoken by the child whom she is bearing.
Both Luke and Matthew include the gritty reality of the refugee situation in their accounts. Luke has a pregnant Mary undertake an enforced journey with Joseph, from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the hometown of his family line, only to be forced to give birth in precarious circumstances. There is no historical evidence for the census that occasioned this journey, but the story provides a compelling vision of what refugees faced then, and still face today.
Matthew has Mary and Joseph, with Jesus now a two-year-old toddler, making an even longer forced trek, from Bethlehem into Egypt, because of the excessive reaction of the king of the time. There is also no historical evidence for the slaughter of all boys aged two and under in Bethlehem at that time, but the story in Matthew’s Gospel again highlights the tenuous situations faced by refugees, then as now.
Matthew’s Moses typology leads him to place the slaughter of the Innocents right at the heart of his narrative. He grounds the story of Jesus in the historical, political, and cultural life of the day, when a tyrant could exercise immense power, when the sensibilities we have about human life seem absent. It provides a dreadful realism to a story which, all too often in the developing Christian Tradition, became etherealised, spiritualised, and romanticised.
We need to remember the Christmas story as an important pointer to the counter-cultural, alternative-narrative impact of the person of Jesus. It is not history, but it offers a powerful myth. It grounds our faith in a revolutionary understanding of reality, and in actions that establish an alternative reality. The story is not to be domesticated and coated in syrup; its stark reality and honest grappling with life needs to be grasped and valued.
As we sing songs of this story, let us not reify the story (that is, turn the narrative into “a thing”, like history) … let us not collapse the story into a surface “real history”, but let us allow the story to speak in a deep way of who we are as humans, and of the reality of our lives today. That is how the story functions, as myth (μῦθος) — not in the sense of myth being “not true”, but rather, in the sense of myth plumbing the depths of human existence.
Myths are the stories we tell that convey deep-seated and fundamental insights about life. Whether they “actually happened” is not the point. More fundamental is that they help us to make sense of our lives. They draw us out of our comfort and preoccupations, and challenge us to see a different reality, to live a different life.
Bernard F. Batto (Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePauw University, Indiana), writes: “In everyday usage today, myth carries a meaning of something untrue, a fable, a fiction, or an illusion. Anthropologists and historians of religion, however, use the term ‘myth’ with a quite different meaning. For them myth refers to a traditional story, usually associated with the time of origins, that has paradigmatic significance for the society in which the story is operative.”
So, this Christmas, let’s rejoice that we have this foundational and paradigmatic story which is not history (ἱστορία), but which functions as myth (μῦθος). And as myth, this story stirs our imaginings and challenges our presuppositions, giving us a different perspective on the realities of life in this world, indicating to us how God engages with us and interacts with our world.
The Canberra Region PresbyteryCo-Chairpersons and Presbytery Ministers offer these greetings as Advent draws to a close and we enter the Christmas season.
HOPE (John Squires)
During December, we have been in the season of Advent. It is a season of four weeks; a season marked by HOPE. The word “Advent” literally means “towards the coming”. It is what pregnant women do; they look with hope “towards the coming” of the expected child. It is what young children do, as dinner time approaches; they look with hope “towards the coming” of their working parents, returning home to share in the evening meal and associated rituals. It is what we have been doing during these four weeks; to look with hope “towards the coming” of Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Day.
It was just over a year ago that the Presbytery elected Judy McKinlay to the position of Co-Chairperson. It was just ten months ago that Andrew Smith and I stood at the front of Canberra City Church, in a service where we were each inducted into our ministry placements as Presbytery Ministers. And it has only been four months since Ross Kingham was elected to fill the other position of Co-Chairperson. We all serve with a desire to encourage, support, equip, and sustain the mission of all the Congregations in this Presbytery.
What a year it has been, to maintain hope! A year ago, many communities were already coping with the immediate impacts of the bushfires; as the fires grew, our anxieties rose, and grief spread wide. Early this year, countries overseas were beginning to experience the devastating impact of a new viral pandemic; the effects of COVID-19 became all to apparent for us as the year proceeded. Fear flew in on top of grief and anxiety. Four months ago, we were just beginning to hope that life might move out of heavy restrictions, and some manner of COVID-normality might be achieved. Hope was knocking on the door, peeking through the curtains.
Hope invites us to stand firm in the midst of these challenges: hope based in who we are, as people of faith. Hope grounded in the resilience of humanity. Hope based on our relationship with a loving God, who extends to us divine Grace so that we might work for compassion and justice in society. Hope made manifest in the story of Jesus, God-with-us, whose coming we remember and celebrate at Christmas.
PEACE (Ross Kingham)
May the PEACE of Christ be yours this Christmas Season!
The following words of James McAuley have enriched the lives of many over the years:
Incarnate Word, in whom all nature lives
Cast flame upon the earth: raise up contemplatives
Among us, those who walk within the fire
Of ceaseless prayer, impetuous desire.
Set pools of silence in this thirsty land:
Distracted folk that sow their hopes in sand
Will sometimes feel an evanescent sense
Of questioning they do not know from whence.
Scan (Mercator’s map) who will, with faithless eyes,
It will not yield…. its mysteries….
He shall not see Leviathan hunt the deep,
Nor Jacob’s ladder rise from stony sleep;
For him the serpent is not lifted up,
Nor Mystery poured red into the cup…
Open, eyes of the heart, begin to see
The tranquil, vast, created mystery,
In all its courts of being laid awake,
Flooded with uncreated light for mercy’s sake.
(James McAuley, Selected Poems, 1963
JOY (Andrew Smith)
JOY springs to my mind and heart when I read the Isaiah 40:1-11 passage that was part of the lectionary for the second Sunday in Advent. In verse 6: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” Part of the answer comes in verse 9. It overflows with joy. The one who cries out is the herald of good tidings. Another who cries out is again the herald of good tidings. They joyfully cry out, “Here is your God!”
There is great joy for the exiles in this passage as their expectancy is raised for the longed-for return of God. They cry out these good tidings to one another, “Here is your God”. When we apply this passage in Advent it raises our expectancy about the coming of Jesus Christ – “Here is your God”. These are good tidings of great joy. Here is forgiveness, restoration, and justice. Here is the coming of the Kingdom of God.
We cry this out to each other as we gather for worship through Advent and Christmas. And joyfully we will get to sing it as well! We also cry it out to the world as we gather with our local communities for Christmas Carol outdoors or indoors. We also experiment in finding ways to cry it out in the course of the whole year in connection with our loving service. In these notices see the article “On the Journey, Know Christ is Here” that touches on some of how Eurobodalla “cried out” in its card that accompanied gifts to fire affected people.
“What shall I cry?” We need help to be heralds of these good tidings. The Gospel Project of our church (running through Uniting Mission and Education) identifies that we need help with developing a clear understanding of the gospel that we can confidently share and speak into the public square. The project aims to develop a Uniting Church perspective on both the good news Jesus proclaimed and the good news about Jesus.
These are good tidings of great joy. Lift up your voice with strength, O herald of good tidings. Lift it up, do not fear. Lift it up in Advent and Christmas. Lift it up all year.
LOVE (Judy McKinlay)
For most in our community, Christmas is primarily about love and family. It seems that’s one reason TV channels air Love Actually every Christmas season. Against the background of Christmas merriment and ritual, it touches on the complications of love and family relationships, and issues of commitment, faithfulness and trust. At the end, Great Britain’s bachelor Prime Minister and his young, sweet staffer publically declare their love. The viewer accepts their declared love as real. How it is actualized from that point on is left to our imagination.
For many of our contemporaries, Love Actually seems more about believable love than the story of a baby born millennia ago to a devout Jewish girl in a Palestinian village. They are wrong. The wonder once evoked by heraldic angels, quaking shepherds and wise men may have faded for 20th Century society, but the plot remains fully explained in 1 John 4, and summarized in John 3: 16. Take a moment to read them again. God leaves nothing to our imagination. He declares and actualizes his love synchronically, because Love is who he is. From the beginning, he has unceasingly, steadfastfully, faithfully, loved the world for which his Son died.
So I was taught that love was our Lord’s meaning. And I saw most certainly in this and in everything, that before God made us he loved us, and this love has never abated nor ever shall. And in this love he has done all his works; and in this love he has made everything for our benefit; and in this love our life is everlasting. In our making we had our beginning, but the love in which he made us was in him from without beginning, and in this love we have our beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end, which may Jesus grant us. Amen. (Julian of Norwhich).
“Beloved, we love because He first loved us.” In this Christmas time when God’s beloved world is so hurting, and so many are grieving, suffering and needing to be loved, may we make Love real in all our words and actions. And may the blessings of hope, peace, joy and love be with you all.
The Moderator of our Synod, the Rev. Simon Hansford, has issued a 2020 Christmas message on video. It is available to watch and upload at https://vimeo.com/485752056
The orderly account of the things coming to fulfilment (which we know as the Gospel of Luke) tells us much more about the beginnings of Jesus (his conception, birth, and early days) than the other Gospels. The passage offered by the lectionary for this Sunday is one such text.
It’s a well-known and familiar passage, from the very beginning of the Christmas story (Luke 1:26-38). It is the scene that is often called The Annunciation. The announcement that is being made in this scene, is to Mary, informing her that she will bear a child.
Mary responds dramatically to this news. She is perplexed, amazed; she is a virgin. “How can this be?”, she asks. A messenger from God informs her, though, that impossibilities are now becoming realities. Indeed, her aged, barren cousin is now pregnant, and Mary will find herself bearing a child—but no ordinary a child; a child “who will be holy, who will he called Son of God”. Now that is really out of the ordinary!
We learn all of this through the “reporting” of a dialogue between the two characters, mother-to-be Mary, and the angel Gabriel. The dialogue isn’t an actual transcript of what took place—indeed, there is no way that the author of this Gospel could have been present to listen and remember.
Instead, the scene is based on the typical dialogue scene that we find at many places in Hebrew Scriptures. And it comes hard on the heels of a similar encounter, another dialogue scene, reported earlier in this chapter (Luke 1:5-22). The earlier dialogue involved an older man, Zechariah (although this dialogue ends up with Zechariah being completely mute); the next scene involves a young woman (who holds her own in the dialogue, as we shall see).
The dialogue proceeds, just as we would expect: he said, then she said; then he said, and so she said. He, of course, is the angel Gabriel. She is Mary, at this time identified simply as “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph” (1:27).
Jews knew about the angel Gabriel from his appearances to Daniel (Dan 8:15-17, 9:21). He appeared to Daniel at the time of prayer (Dan 9:21)—presumably this is the same angel who had earlier appeared to Zechariah, in Jerusalem, at a time of prayer (1:10-11).
If this is indeed the same angelic person who appeared to Daniel (and to Zechariah, and Mary), then he was quite a sight; Daniel describes Gabriel as “a man clothed in linen, with a belt of gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like beryl, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the roar of a multitude.” (Dan 10:5-6).
Such an appearance would undoubtedly evoke fear. Indeed, before Gabriel even speaks to him, Zechariah is said to have been “terrified, and fear overwhelmed him” (Luke 1:12), as also was Daniel (Dan 8:17), who says that “my strength left me, and my complexion grew deathly pale, and I retained no strength”, before he fell in a trance to the ground (Dan 10:8-9).
So the words of the angel, in both scenes, seek to meet this understandable response. “Do not be afraid”, he says to Zechariah (1:13) and also to Mary (1:30). This is what angels do; this is how they greet people: “do not be afraid” (see Gen 15:1, 26:24; 2 Kings 1:15; Dan 10:9). Zechariah’s fear had gripped him before he spoke a word, but Mary had the presence of mind, before the angel spoke these words, to reflect on what she was experiencing.
The dialogue begins when Gabriel greets Mary (1:28) and informs her that she was favoured (the word comes from the Greek word charis, which means grace or favour, and becomes a key theological term in early Christianity). Mary is described as being “much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (1:29).
He then says, as we have noted, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” That is followed by a declaration of the name of the child: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (1:31). This is parallel to the declaration made to Zechariah: “your prayer has been heard; your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John” (1:13).
This follows the same pattern in scriptural stories when divinely-favoured women are told they will give birth, and they name of their child: Hagar, mother of Ishmael (Gen 16:11), Sarah, mother of Isaac (Gen 17:19), Gomer, the wife of Hosea and mother of three children (Hosea 1:4,6,9); and see also the moment of naming for Leah, mother of Asher (Gen 30:13), the unnamed mother of Samson (Judges 13:24), and Hannah, mother of Samuel (1 Sam 1:20).
The angel continues: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David; he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (1:32-33). The Davidic ancestry of Jesus was an important claim for the early Christians. It was cited in early literature as a key element (Luke 2:4; John 7:42; Rom 1:3; 2 Tim 2:8; Rev 5:5, 22:16; see more on this at https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/).
In response to this good comeback, Gabriel responds with a number of significant points. First, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” This statement references three central scriptural elements.
The Holy Spirit is understood to be active throughout the story of Israel: at the moment of creation (Gen 1:1-2), bringing all creatures into being (Ps 104:30), in equipping specific leaders (Exod 31:2-3; Num 11:25, 26; Deut 34:9; Judges 3:9-10, 6:34, 11:29, 13:25; 1 Sam 10:6, 10, 11:6, 16:13, 2 Sam 23:2; 2 Kings 2:9, 15), by inspiring the prophets (Isa 61:1: Ezekiel 2:2; Joel 2:28-29), and in the servant of the Lord (Isa 42:1). Mary here stands with others early in Luke’s story who experience the Holy Spirit coming upon them (John, 1:15; Elizabeth, 1:41; Zechariah, 1:67; Simeon, 2:25-26); and, of course, Jesus himself is filled with the Spirit (3:22; 4:1).
Holiness was a central element of piety in ancient Israel; the holy God called a holy people to live in covenant with him, and exhibit holiness in every aspect of life (Lev 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7-8; Exod 19:6; Deut 7:6, 14:2, 21, 28:9). Following from this prophetic word to his pregnant mother, the adult Jesus was indeed known as “the holy one” (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34; John 6:69; Acts 3:14, 13:35).
“Son of God” was also a phrase derived from older traditions; the king was regarded as God’s son (Ps 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14), commencing with David (Ps 89:26-28), and Israel as a whole was regarded as God’s son (Exod 4:22: Jer 31:9, 20). It is applied to Jesus with regularity in his adult life (Luke 4:3,9,41; 8:28; 22:70; Acts 9:20; John 1:34,49; 11:4,27; 19:7; 20:31) as well as in early confessions of faith (Rom 1:4; 2 Cor 1:19; Gal 2:20; Eph 4:13; Heb 4:14; 6:6; 10:29; 1 John 3:8; 4:15; 5:5; Rev 2:18).
Then, Gabriel tells Mary, “your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren” (1:35). The Hebrew Scriptures offer accounts of women thought unable to bear a child, being visited by an angel and gifted a child by God, such as Sarah (Gen 11:30), Rebekah (Gen 25:21), and the woman who bore Samson (Judges 13:3). This blessing from God is celebrated by the psalmist (Ps 113:9) and the prophet (Isa 54:1).
Gabriel’s final words are “nothing will be impossible with God” (1:35-36). This also is a biblical phrase; see Zechariah 8:6, and note also Gen 18:14 and Job 42:2.
Finally, to end the conversation, Mary concludes, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38). She accepts what is in store for her. Traditional Christianity has highlighted this element in the story; Mary becomes the humble, self-effacing, obediently submissive, thoroughly passive figure of traditional Catholic piety.
This overlooks the fact that “here am I” was a standard response to a commission from God, spoken by faithful and fearless prophets, Moses (Exod 3:4), Samuel (1 Sam 3:4), Isaiah (Isa 6:8), Trito-Isaiah (Isa 65:1), and Jeremiah (Jer 26:14), as well as the psalmist (Ps 40:7), and the patriarchs, Abraham (Gen 22:1), Esau (Gen 27:1), Jacob (Gen 31:11 and 46:2). It is also the response of Ananias in Damascus to a vision of the Lord (Acts 9:10). Mary is here accepting a challenging divine commission, and pledging her commitment to the task. It is an activist’s response!
The interpretation of Mary as passive, humble, submissive and obedient also overlooks the feisty nature of Mary’s interchange with Gabriel, as we have traced it. And this feisty nature, with its prophetic focus and clarity, is made clear just a few verses later, as Mary sings in praise of God (1:39-45). In this song, she makes it clear that she is up for the task, that she has the vision of what God is doing in Jesus, that she is fully subscribed to working for the righteous-justice of God in the lives of her people!
The many scriptural resonances, both in that song (known as the Magnificat) and in the scene of the Annunciation, indicate that Mary is to be understand within the stream of prophetic figures in Hebrew Scripture. She was a force to be reckoned with!
The scene of the Annunciation closes with the brief note, “the angel departed from her” (1:38). The angel had left; but the consequences of this announcement would stay with Mary, through the coming months of her pregnancy and the birth of the child; and through the coming years, of his growth through childhood, his adulthood, and the tragic events of betrayal, trial, crucifixion and death.
Mary knew, from the start, of the significance of this child (at least as Luke tells in his orderly account). And what did Mary know, of the stories that were later told, that he proclaimed the kingdom, healed the sick, cast out demons, and had even been raised from the dead? And how did she speak of him, then?
Every Christmas, we are surrounded by images of the much-loved nativity scene: the infant Jesus, in a cradle, with his mother Mary sitting and his father Joseph standing nearby, surrounded by animals (cows, most often), with a group of shepherds (perhaps with their sheep) to one side, whilst on the other side three colourfully-dressed men stand with presents in hand: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
We see this image everywhere. But it is not an accurate portrayal of what was happening at the time when Jesus was born. For one thing, it is not a photograph of an actual event. Far from it. It is not even based on a written report from the first century, telling that this was what happened.
The traditional scene that we see today did not come into being until it was invented by the medieval friar, Francis of Assisi. Before that, it did not exist. And no Gospel account actually tells of cows mooing beside the newborn child, or of the newborn infant making no crying sounds, or of the sheep baaing alongside the cows, that we see in the traditional nativity scene.
Francis is the most popular Catholic saint in the world. He is the one who preached to the birds; blessed fish that had been caught, releasing them back into the water; and communicated with wolves, brokering an agreement between one famous ferocious wolf and the citizens of a town that were terrified of it. There is no surprise, then, that Francis used real animals when he created the very first, live, Christmas nativity scene. As a result of all these stories, Francis is the patron saint of animals and the environment. And he is the inventor of the familiar nativity scene.
Actually, this scene is a compilation of two quite discrete stories, told decades later, offering very different perspectives on the event, providing two somewhat different emphases in the story of the birth of this child. The nativity scene merges and blends the story found in the orderly account constructed by Luke, and the book of origins compiled by Matthew. Wise men and shepherds sit on each side of the family group, at the same time, in the same place, in this traditional scene. But not in our biblical accounts.
In the opening chapters of Matthew, we encounter the pregnant Mary, the newborn infant Jesus, his father Joseph, a bright star in the sky, visitors from the east, the tyrannical rule of Herod, and slaughtered infant boys. In this story, Matthew is working hard to place Jesus alongside the great prophet of Israel, Moses. The early years of Jesus unfold in striking parallel to the early years of Moses. The parallel patterns are striking.
Luke tells a more irenic version of the story than what is found in Matthew’s Gospel. The story told by Luke (usually represented through idyllic pastoral scenes and sweetly-singing angels), actually tells of a widespread movement of the population that meant a pregnant Mary, accompanied by Joseph, had to travel afar and find lodging in a crowded town just as the most inconvenient time.
There are historical problems with this story: identifying the census as an actual historical event, and locating it accurately in time, both present challenges; the fact that Herod, ruling in Matthew’s account, died in 4BCE, but Quirinius, who ordered the census noted in Luke’s account, began as Governor in 6 CE. However, the combined story has entered the popular mindset as a real event and provides a clear and compelling picture of the holy family as refugees, because of decisions made by political authorities, whether Herod or Quirinius.
We overlook, perhaps, that the shepherds who came in from the fields to pay homage to the newborn child would have been despised for carrying out a lowly and unworthy occupation. They were outcasts, considered impure and unclean, placed outside the circle of holiness within which good Jews were expected to live. In the Mishnah, a third century work which collects and discusses traditional Jewish laws, shepherds are classified amongst those who practice “the craft of robbers”. These are not highly valued guests!
Even though this is not an historical story, it is important for theological reasons. It is part of the foundational myth of the Christian faith. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel wants to make strong correlations between Jesus and Moses, not only in the mythological account found in the opening chapters, but also throughout the following chapters of the Gospel. The writer of Luke’s Gospel hints at his key themes in the opening chapter, and the develops a strong political and economic message throughout his Gospel: God reached out to the poor and powerless, and harshly judges the wealthy and powerful.
As myth, the tradition points to important truths. Matthew’s account of “the Slaughter of the Innocents”, for instance, although generated by his Moses typology, still grounds the story of Jesus in the historical, political, and cultural life of the day, when tyrants exercised immense power. Even though we recognise Matthew is not reporting an actual historical event, his narrative provides a dreadful realism to a story which, all too often in the developing Christian Tradition, became etherealised, spiritualised, and romanticised.
By the same token, Luke’s recounting of the visit of the outcast shepherds to the infant child and his family indicates that those on the edge were welcomed by Jesus throughout his ministry. He grounds the message of the Gospel in the heart of the needs of the people of his day.
So even as we recognise that the Christmas story is not history, we can appreciate the insights that it offers us as a mythological narrative. It is worth celebrating: not as an actual historical event, in the way it is traditionally portrayed, but as the foundation of the faith that we hold: in Jesus, God has come to be with us.
Last week, the lectionary offered a Gospel passage from the beginning of the good news about Jesus, featuring the fiersome desert-dwelling prophet, John, known as the Baptiser (Mark 1:1-8). This week, we have a section from the book of signs in which the same person, John, figures. But he is quite a different person in this week’s text–and the way he is portrayed offers a glimpse into another world.
The book of signs introduces John as a much more domesticated figure, compared with the way that he appears at the start of the beginning of the good news of Jesus. In John’s account, he appears, all of a sudden, in the midst of the majestic poetic Prologue (1:1-18) which opens this Gospel.
The Prologue is focussed on the eternal character of the Word of God (1:1-2), present at the moment of creation (1:3), shaping the world that we know and inhabit (1:14, 16-17). In the midst of this, the human figure of John appears—as somewhat of an anomaly in the midst of the ethereal poetic lines (1:6-8, 15).
The Prologue is followed by a more prosaic Prelude (1:19-51), which narrates a series of encounters involving John, Jesus, and their followers. These encounters establish the centrality of Jesus in the narrative, first through the testimony of John the baptiser (1:19-36), then by having various individuals “come and see” him (1:39, 46).
Both John and these individual disciples confess the significance of Jesus through a variety of Christological titles. This Prelude ends with Jesus himself adopting a title to explain his significance (“Son of Man”, 1:51).
That John is a witness to Jesus is already indicated in the Prologue, through some prosaic narrative insertions into the grand poetic opening. The Lectionary this coming Sunday offers us both the initial prosaic comment (1:6-8), and the ensuing story relating what John said about Jesus (1:19-28).
But the John whom we meet in this gospel is a very different figure from the desert dwelling apocalyptic visionary whom we encountered in last week’s reading from Mark’s gospel. The Johannine John does not frequent the desert, as in Mark 1; rather, his activity is located in Bethany, near the Jordan (1:28).
The Johannine John does not issue a clarion call for repentance, as in Mark 1; rather, he bears witness to Jesus, “the one coming after me” (1:27), as the one “who ranks ahead of me” (1:30). As John, in this gospel, bears witness to Jesus (1:6–8, 15; 1:29–36; 3:25–30; 10:41), he testifies that Jesus is the light (1:7), of greater rank than John himself (1:15, 30), the Lamb of God (1:29, 36), the Son of God (1:34), the bridegroom (3:29), and, by implication, the Messiah (1:20; 3:28).
What is the reason for this different portrayal of John the Baptist in this Gospel?
The Gospel of John includes some pointers to the development of a faith community which looked beyond the parameters of Judaism as it was being shaped by the Pharisees, towards other forms of Jewish faith and life—and perhaps beyond. The Gospel is being painted on a wider canvas. It offers us glimpses
The early prominence accorded to John the baptiser, and other content such as the fact that the first large–scale success enjoyed by Jesus was in Samaria, and the appearance of Greeks in Jerusalem, seeking Jesus, and even the way that the Logos (the Word) is portrayed in the Prologue, each point to this wider canvas. Sometimes this is defined as “heterodox Judaism”, in contrast to the dominant Pharisaic stream within formative Judaism.
John the baptiser is prominent at the start of each canonical gospel; scholars wonder if there was originally a link between the Jesus movement and the movement led by John the baptiser. Evidence for this link is also drawn from places such as Acts 19:1–7, and the Q passage in Luke 7 (par Matt 11). It is John’s Gospel which provides the clearest evidence, when it recounts that the earliest followers of Jesus were drawn from the followers of John (1:35–42).
This emphatic depiction of John as deflecting attention from himself, to Jesus, indicates that there was, at an early stage, some competition between the two figures—or, at least, between their respective followers. This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandaean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.
Thus, the reform movement within Second Temple Judaism headed by John is seen to have had some influence on the gospel, in its early stages, at least. John stands outside the Pharisaic–rabbinic stream of Judaism which would become dominant after 70 CE. This is the first indication of the influence of a different kind of Judaism on this Gospel, which led to the development of a different form of Christianity in the ensuing centuries.
Likewise, the prominence accorded to Samaria in John 4 can be seen as a significant indicator of an important influence shaping the gospel. This scene (like all others in this gospel) is not a straightforward historical narrative, but rather a remembering of an important part of the beliefs of the community, conveyed through the narration of a “typical” incident.
The encounter at the well (4:5–8) leads into a long scene where Jesus engages in deepening theological reflection with the Samaritan woman (4:9–28a), climaxing in the first successful missionary venture within the Jesus movement (4:28b–30, 39–42)—at least, as John recounts it. The first missionary is this anonymous Samaritan woman, and the first body of converts to Jesus are inhabitants of the Samaritan village.
This story has a powerful function within this particular community’s traditions. Samaritans are depicted as sharing a common Jewish ancestry (“our father Jacob”, 4:12) and holding an eschatological hope in the Messiah (“I know that Messiah is coming”, 4:25). Yet embedded in the story are clear indications of the tensions between this northern form of Judaism and the dominant southern mode; ordinary dealings between Jew and Samaritan are unusual (4:9), and liturgical–theological differences mark them off from one another (4:20–21). The success of Jesus’ message in this context indicates its attraction to those outside the “mainstream”.
The words and ideas found in the Prologue to the gospel (1:1–18) have led to a further hypothesis that Hellenistic Judaism had been influential in the context in which the gospel was shaped. The role of the Logosis akin to the role of Wisdom within Hellenistic Jewish literature —both as the agent by which God created the world, and as the means by which God reveals knowledge and truth to the world.
That Judaism had long been engaged with the dominant hellenistic culture, has been well proven by contemporary scholarship. Influences from the Greek–speaking world, and its hellenised culture, are reflected in numerous Jewish writings. In this gospel, the account of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus (12:20–22) is a clear indication of the interaction between the community of the gospel, and the wider hellenised world.
The issue is also raised by the question of the Pharisees at 7:35; “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” Other signs, less immediately obvious, pointing to this influence, are claimed at various points throughout the gospel. Once again, we see that the kind of Judaism which has influenced the gospel is not of the dominant, Pharisaic–rabbinic kind. It has become open to the wider world; perhaps the community which first received this Gospel had already become somewhat diversified in its composition.
This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandaean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.
So, the distinctive figure of John at the start of this distinctive Gospel, offers a keyhole through which we can gain a glimpse of a little-appreciated strand amongst the wide diversity of options in early Christianity.
When we come to the end of the New Testament, we find that the final book bears the name of the apostle John. We know it as the book of the Revelation of John. This book, however, is dramatically different from the Gospel that also bears John’s name. It has its own utterly distinctive character and style.
This book has some indications that it is to be understood as a letter. The opening section (1:1–20) includes an explicit identification of the author (1:4) and the location of his writing (1:9); a brief description of the situation of the recipients (1:9) along with a listing of the specific cities in which they lived (1:11); and a short blessing and doxology (1:4–5).
The book also contains the text of seven short letters, to the churches in these seven cities (2:1–3:22). The closing section (22:8–21) reiterates the role of the author (22:8) and concludes with a blessing formula (22:21). Each of these elements reflects traditional letter-writing style.
The author identifies himself as John (1:4, 9; 22:8) and notes that he was living on the island of Patmos (1:9); church tradition has equated him with John, the disciple of Jesus, as well as the author of the fourth Gospel and three letters. However, this book is strikingly different from the Gospel and the three letters.
Some have argued that the tone of the book might reflect the style of one of “the Sons of Thunder”, as the disciple John was labelled (Mark 3:17); but such a generalisation is not grounded in specific evidence.
Both the style of Greek employed and the way that biblical imagery is deployed sets this book apart from the Gospel which bears John’s name; whilst that book is steeped in biblical imagery and language, it is done in a more subtle and sophisticated manner.
The issues addressed in each of the letters which are attributed to John are internal church matters, quite different from the broader view of society which is in view in Revelation. These letters require separate consideration from the dramatic scenes which follow.
The recipients of the book, identified generically as “the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4), are then named one by one, by city (1:11). In the details of the seven letters which are addressed specifically to these seven churches (2:1–3:22), we might imagine that we will find insight into the specific situation in these churches, which is being addressed in this book.
Yet, a careful reading of these particular letters indicates that they are written and delivered in response to a dramatic vision of a distinguished figure with an ominous presence, who instructs the author to write the letters to the angels of the various churches (1:9–20).
Furthermore, the content of a number of these letters introduces additional elements which are striking and unusual—seven stars held in a man’s hand, seven spirits of God, seven golden lampstands, white robes and a white stone, immoral behaviours and strange teachings which exhibit Satanic influences.
As we read on, we discover that this turns out to be just a little “sampler” of the far more complex and intricate world of heavenly beings and exotic creatures, who populate a series of increasingly bizarre and disturbing visions throughout the rest of the book. The whole book is much more than a letter, or a series of letters.
The opening and closing chapters give a number of clues in this regard. The work is characterised as being words of prophecy (1:3; 22:10, 18–19). The prophecy which is presented in this book is summarised as what must soon take place (1:1; 22:6). Both at the beginning and at the end of the book, the author declares that he is looking forward in time, reporting events that will soon occur.
However, this is not simply John’s view of what is to happen; what he writes, he maintains, has first been made known to him by an angel (1:1; 22:6, 8). So, the visions reported in chapters 4–21 are encircled by strong assertions of their significance and import.
As the book ends (22:6–21), a series of statements and affirmations reinforce the importance of what has been revealed in these visions.
First, the author repeats the explicit claim that this was shown to him by an angel (22:8–9). The instruction he is given, to make this known (“do not seal up the words”, 22:10), ensures that the message will become public—the author must write letters and report visions to those who will listen.
Then the author intensifies the moment by reporting the direct words of Jesus: “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you” (22:16); the message has a clear heavenly origin.
Next comes a dire warning not to tamper with the words as revealed by these means (22:18–19); the style is that of a solemn oath. The work closes with a prayer which looks to the way of Jesus in the future, “Come, Lord Jesus” (22:20), and a final formulaic benediction of grace (22:11, evoking the opening blessing of 1:4).
Ways of interpreting this book
The book of Revelation has probably become the most misunderstood book of the New Testament—because of the enigmatic nature, and the dramatic power, of these visionary sections. There are numerous theories seeking to ‘explain’ the meaning of the visions and to ‘prove’ the identity of the various figures who appear in these visions.
There are many approaches that have been taken to explain the vivid imagery which depicts the future judgement of humanity, which has led to this also being one of the most misused books of the New Testament. It has been interpreted by groups of fervent believers throughout the centuries as evidence that the end of the world was at hand.
How, then, do we seek to “understand” this book? When ever we turn to scripture, are we looking for clear doctrinal statements? In which case, this book could be mined as a source for teachings about “the last days”.
Or do we hope to encounter stories which help us to understand what has transpired in history? In which case, we will look for evidence that pins down the content of this book and grounds it in real-life events.
Both approaches require us to develop an extensive system of interpretation for reading this book. This is not a simple or straightforward task.
An alternative (and often employed) way of reading this book is to consider that it is prophecy which provides a set of predictions about the future. Sometimes this is seen to relate to the times immediately in the future of the writer, in the late 1st century. Other interpreters claim that the book is pointing forward in time, to events that will take place beyond the time of the reader, in our own times (that is, the 21st century).
Some people will want to read the book simply as literature in its own right; as a work of art, it has the power to generate ideas and responses without necessarily tying these down to what is “true” or “accurate”. Ideological critics might wish to engage in dialogue with the book in relation to the violence which runs throughout the visions.
Some readers have considered this book to be an expression of patriarchal power, caught up in the masculine enterprise of solving disputes through coercion and violence. Others have undertaken a search for an alternative vision of peacemaking in the midst of human warfare, as the lamb who was slaughtered is the one who ultimately triumphs.
How do you come to this book?What is the lens, the perspective, that you employ, to read this dramatic and different book?
Whatever the way is that we seek to approach our reading of this book, it will influence the kind of understanding that results. Because the work does not lay down one simple narrative line; because it is so rich and intricate in its symbolism; because it places layer upon layer, image upon image, it will produce multiple readings with multiple appreciations. Such is the complex nature of interpreting biblical texts.
This coming Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary takes us to the very start of the earliest written account telling the story of Jesus of Nazareth: to the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one, Son of God (Mark 1:1).
But there’s much about Jesus that we “know” that isn’t evident from this earliest and shortest story. We can deduce that Jesus was born to a Jewish family in a small town in Galilee (northern Israel). The precise date of his birth is not known, although it is now thought to be somewhere around the year 4 BCE. The town was most likely Nazareth. Indeed, in this work (the Gospel according to Mark), he is clearly identified as Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 1:24, 10:47, 14:67, 16:6).
There is no story in this Gospel which places the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, as we find in two later works (Matt 2:1-8; Luke 2:4,15; see also John 7:42). Elsewhere, he is known as “Jesus, the son of Joseph” (Luke 2:23; John 1:45, 6:42) and “the carpenter’s son” (Matt 13:55); but this particular Gospel contains no reference to the father of Jesus, only to his (unnamed) mother (Mark 3:31).
The region of Galilee was governed by Herod (Luke 1:5), and the whole of the land of Israel was part of the Roman Empire (Luke 3:1). Few people were extremely well off in the Roman Empire. A flourishing merchant class plied its trade on land and sea, but, like the vast majority of people in his country, Jesus did not enjoy a lavish lifestyle.
Jesus’ father, Joseph, worked in the building trade, probably as a carpenter. His mother (who was probably only 14 or 15 when he was born) had a number of other children after Jesus was born (see Mark 3:31-35). The family would have lived in a basic house made of mud or wood, and divided into two: one half for the family, the other half for their animals.
Jesus was raised as a good Jew. We can hypothesise much about his upbringing and faith. He knew the daily prayer of the Jews, the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One”). He also knew the major annual festivals of his people: Passover, Harvest (later called Pentecost) and Tabernacles.
Jesus attended the synagogue each Sabbath, where he watched the scrolls containing the Hebrew scriptures unrolled, before they were read (in Hebrew, the sacred language) and explained (in Aramaic, the language of the common Jewish folk). Jesus, like all his fellow–Jews, believed that his God, Yahweh, was the one true God. He followed the traditional practices of worship and studied the scriptures under the guidance of the scribes in his synagogue.
Since Israel had been occupied by foreign forces for many centuries before Jesus was born, first by Greeks, and then by Romans, he would have grown up in an environment where Greek (the common international language of the time) was spoken. Jesus would probably have understood Greek; but it would have been unlikely that he used Greek often; Aramaic was his native tongue.
Jesus would certainly have encountered the soldiers of the Roman Empire, and knew the kind of deference that they expected. Some of his contemporaries, in zealous obedience to the Torah, attempted to use force to overcome the Roman colonisers. Unlike them, Jesus did not take up arms in an attempt to rid the land of the Romans. He understood the constraints of living in an occupied land.
At a mature age (by tradition, in his early 30’s), Jesus made his way south towards Jerusalem, into the desert regions, along with other Jews of the day. Beside the Jordan River he listened to the preaching of a strange figure—a desert-dwelling apocalyptic prophet named John (Mark 1:4-8).
This man, named John, had a number of striking features (1:6). His dress, a tunic made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt, is reminiscent of Elijah the Tishbite, who dressed in a similar manner (2 Kings 1:8). His diet, comprising locusts and honey, evokes the ascetic life of a desert dweller ( …). The impression is clear: John intends to evoke the prophet Elijah.
Elijah exercised his role of prophet under the corrupt rule of Ahab and Jezebel. The most famous stories about Elijah take place in the desert, as the prophet speaks of a coming drought (1 Kings 17:1-7), and then challenges the dominant authorities, berating them for worshipping Baal rather than the Lord (1 Kings 18:20-29), and calling for their repentance (1 Kings 18:30-40). He is remembered as a fearsome figure with an apocalyptic message (Mal 4:4-6).
In Mark’s Gospel, the later desert-dwelling prophet, John, evokes the memory of the earlier desert-dwelling prophet, Elijah. He comes on the scene right at the start of the story, dressed in the manner of Elijah, and in a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy (1:2-3), announces that he is preparing the way for the coming of a “more powerful one”, who will baptise God’s people with the Holy Spirit (1:7-8).
This is real “fire-and-brimstone” preaching! The fire in the message of “the more powerful one who is coming” is implicit in Mark’s story; it is made explicit in the accounts of Matthew and Luke, who each report John as saying, “he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11, Luke 3:16).
John’s message was the traditional prophetic call to repent (1:4). Prophets occasionally call directly for repentance (Isa 1:27; Jer 8:4-7, 9:4-5, 34:15; Ezek 14:6, 18:30; Zech 1:1-6), but so many of the oracles included in both major and minor prophets provide extended diatribes against the sinfulness of Israel and call for a return to the ways of righteousness that are set out in the convening with the Lord. When prophets called for repentance, they were seeking a striking and thoroughgoing change of mind, a reversal of thinking and acting, a 180 degree turnaround, amongst the people.
Accompanying this, however, was a very distinctive action that John the desert dweller performed, of immersing people into the river (Mark 1:5). Our Bibles translate this as “baptising”, but it was actually a wholesale dunking right down deep into the waters of the river.
Our refined ecclesial terminology of “baptism” is often associated, in the popular mind, with cute babies in beautiful christening gowns surrounded by adoring grandparents, aunties and uncles. This leads us far away from the stark realities of the act: being pushed down deep into the river, being completely surrounded by the waters, before emerging saturated and maybe gasping for air.
Such a dramatic dunking was designed to signify the cleansing of the repentant person. Repentance and baptism were necessary for the ushering in of the reign of God, according to John. Jesus appears to have accepted this point of view; it is most likely that his baptism was an intense religious experience for him. He underwent a whole scale change of mind, a reorientation towards the mission that was thrust upon him.
From the moment of this intense experience, Jesus was fervently committed to the renewal and restoration of Israel. His first words, as reported in this shortest and earliest account of his ministry, were clear and focussed (1:14-15). There are four key elements: fulfilment of the time, nearness of the kingdom, the need to repent, and belief in the good news. Repentance is pivotal in this succinct summary of his message. It was the heart of the message that Jesus instructed his followers to proclaim (6:12).
After this dramatic dunking by the desert dweller, Jesus left his family and began travelling around Galilee, announcing that the time was near for dramatic changes to take place. He gathered a group of men and women who accepted his teachings, journeying with him as he spread the news throughout Galilee. The intense religious experience of his dunking meant that the fierce apocalyptic message spoken by the desert dweller was lived out in a radical way in daily life by this group of deeply committed associates of Jesus. The intense religious experience associated with his dramatic dunking by the desert dweller had a deep and abiding impact.
Messengers like John have always been an important part of God’s “strategy” for working in human affairs. There are always those who are called to prepare others for God’s coming and to announce what God is doing.
The challenge for us in this Advent season, then, is to create an environment in which we can listen to the sharpness of the words spoken by God’s messengers, and recognise the ways that we ourselves are called to bring this challenging message to our world in our time. Aligning ourselves with the message of John is quite a challenge!
Alongside the thirteen letters attributed to Paul, there are another eight documents which are included in the New Testament which are, by tradition, identified as letters. Seven of them are attributed to other apostles: three to John, two to Peter, and one each to James and Jude. One further document is anonymous, in that it is identified by its recipients (to the Hebrews) rather than its purported author.
These eight documents are of varying lengths, addressed to a range of people in a variety of locations. They contain injunctions, exhortations, and commands about how to live in accordance with the way of Jesus.
They reflect the varying realities of some small, growing communities of followers of Jesus in the eastern Mediterranean region. These communities developed within the fertile fields of Second Temple Judaism. Their members were seeking to live out their faith under the realities of the Roman imperial power. Ultimately each of them contributed to the formation of what came to be known as the Christian Church.
In each case, the book is presented as a letter—although the character of some of these books suggests that they may not originally have been written as a letter.
These books provide us with insights into the variety of ways that the early church presented the good news and gave instructions about following the way of Jesus. Each in their own way points to the continuing presence of Jewish believers beyond the initial years of the Jesus movement.
Letters in the Name of John
The author of 1 John is never named, but the opening verse makes the claim that the letter comes from one who has “heard…seen…looked at and touched” for himself, the very “word of life” (1:1). The inference is that the author has had personal contact with Jesus himself; in the third century, Irenaeus made the definitive claim that the letter was written by “John, the disciple of the Lord” (Against Heresies 3.16.5).
This claim goes beyond any direct assertion within the letter itself; although such a claim might be reinforced by the author’s reiteration of his privileged status as eyewitness (and earwitness): “we have seen it” (1:2), “what we have seen and heard” (1:3), “the message we have heard from him” (1:5), as well as a later reminder: “just as he has commanded us” (3:23).
Both 1 John and the Gospel of John state that they were “written … [concerning] “eternal life”, which was granted to people who “believe” in Jesus as “the Son of God”. The similarities suggest either common authorship, or an intentional allusion to the Gospel by the author of the letter. The differences in style and theology between the two works are subtle, but they do reinforce the latter option as preferable.
One clear difference to be noted is that, whilst the Gospel makes frequent references to Hebrew Scripture (both in quotations and by allusion), the letter betrays little awareness of these scriptures, other than what had already been mediated through the Gospel. The strong Jewish context of the Gospel is not evident in this letter.
The identity of the author of 2 John, and the recipients of this letter, has occasioned debate; in neither case is the letter unambiguous in what it says. The “elect lady and her children” (1) could be specific historical individuals, but are usually interpreted in a symbolic fashion, referring to a community of believers with their patroness. A later comment supports this interpretation, with a reference to “the house” (10) suggesting a community of believers meeting in a house. (Evidence for this practice is to be found in Acts and Paul’s letters.)
“The elder”, likewise, is anonymous; similarities in vocabulary and theology point to connections with the author of the first letter of John, and to the author of the Gospel (as noted below). A link with the apostle John depends on decisions made about the authorship of these documents.
A comment in the first church history, written in the early fourth century by Eusebius, provides a problem for this last claim. Eusebius refers to the second century leader, Papias, and notes that he apparently differentiates between John, one of “the disciples of the Lord”, and “the elder John” (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.3–4). Nothing in this letter itself supports a claim for apostolic authorship.
In 3 John, we might readily assume that “the elder” (1) is the same person as the author of 2 John; at a very basic level, there is strong similarity of terminology in phrases used, such as “whom I love in truth” (1), “I was overjoyed” (3), the reference to writing “with pen and ink” (13), and the final greeting (15a).
More significantly, key theological features of the Johannine Gospel and the other two letters of John are evident in this letter: a commitment to truth (1, 3, 4, 12) and a valuing of love (6). There is also a sense that the local community is part of a wider movement, in the exhortation to act “faithfully” towards fellow believers, even if they are not personally known by the recipients of this letter. (The Greek term of verse 5, adelphos, literally means “brother”; NRSV “friends” rightfully gives it an inclusive sense).
A Letter in the Name of James
The description of the author of this treatise is short and to the point: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”(1:1). James was a well-known figure; he is named amongst the brothers of Jesus (Mark 6:3; Matt 13:55; Gal 1:19) and seems to have been the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:20; 21:20).
Was the treatise written before James was put to death in 62CE? (Josephus reports his death in book 20 of his Jewish Antiquities—not to be confused with James, the son of Zebedee, whose death in the year 44CE is noted at Acts 12:2.) The knowledge of Jewish scripture and traditions shown in this work, as well as its extensive set of allusions to the teachings of Jesus, support the possibility that James himself wrote it—or, more likely, preached it, with someone else writing it down. There are many features to support the view that it originated within the early Palestinian (even Jerusalem) part of the Jesus movement.
The refined style and extensive Greek vocabulary employed throughout suggest it may have been written by one schooled in Greek rhetoric and literature—and thus, unlikely to have been a Jewish peasant. So, the book might have been written in the form we have it after the death of James, perhaps as statement of his authority and teaching within the Jerusalem church, in order to encourage other congregations with Jewish members.
One verse describes these congregations as “your synagogues” (2:2). Some scholars have claimed that it must have been written much later, even in the second century, by a person writing in the name of James, as a way of claiming his authority for the teachings proposed in this letter. This view seems less persuasive these days.
Letters in the Name of Peter
The author of 1 Peter is announced simply as “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1:1). This would suggest a letter from a writer with close personal links with Jesus. The substance of the letter sits uneasily with this claim. The letter’s refined style of language, and especially the use of a number of classical Greek words, is rather unexpected for a Galilean fisherman.
There are a number of references to the suffering of Jesus (1:11; 2:4, 21, 24; 3:18; 4:1, 13; 5:1), but no other indication that the author knew anything of the earthly ministry of Jesus. Instead, the letter reflects the Christology of the developing movement, interpreting the death of Jesus in sacrificial terms (1:18–19; 2:24; 3:18) and attesting to him as the one who is risen (1:3; 3:21), a mediator with God (2:5), to be acknowledged as Lord (3:15), now dwelling with God in glory (3:22; 5:10), whose future return is awaited (1:7–8, 13; 4:13; 5:4).
The author claims to have been “a witness of the sufferings of Christ” (5:1)—a curious claim to be made by Peter, if the accounts of his denial and desertion of Jesus, found in the canonical gospels, are to be believed! He also describes himself as an “elder” (5:1), which we would not expect to be a term to be adopted by Peter. The word indicates the author’s leadership role within the developing community of faith.
The identification of this community as being “in Babylon” (5:13) is frequently interpreted as being code for Rome, drawing on the same tradition found in Revelation 17:1–18:24. The link with Mark (5:13) has been taken as a further indication of Roman origins, as Mark was alleged to have been in Rome with Peter. However, these connections are faint, revealing nothing of substance about the nature or purpose of the letter.
The close of the letter indicates that it has been written “through Silvanus” (5:12), leading some interpreters to suggest that Silvanus, as secretary, placed a more educated and polished mark on the letter as he transcribed the author’s thoughts. But an alternative translation of this verse is possible, by which Silvanus is designated as the one who delivers the letter, rather than being involved in its writing.
Thus, this Silvanus may well be a different person from the Silvanus who is known as a fellow-worker with Paul (2 Cor 1:19; Acts 15:40) and is called the co-author, with Paul, of both letters to Thessalonica. As he was a member of the Pauline group, we would expect more Pauline influence to be evident in 1 Peter if he was involved in its creation.
In fact, the letter shows more similarity to the “pastoral” letters attributed to Paul. Like them, it is more feasible that this letter was written after the death of the apostle, in his name, in order to encourage and guide believers in what appears to have been a time of increased suffering. Jesus is invoked as the guide and example for believers in this situation.
The first verses of 2 Peter follow the pattern of the opening address of a letter: “Simeon Peter…to those who have received faith…grace and peace” (1:1–2). However, nothing else reflects standard letter practice. There are no closing greetings, simply a reference (unique amongst New Testament books) to Paul and “all his letters” and a warning not to be swayed by erroneous interpretations of them (3:15b–17). The work ends abruptly with a truncated benediction (3:18b).
The work presents as a letter, but its true purpose is signalled by a series of revealing phrases in an opening statement. With his death in view, the author asserts, “I intend to keep on reminding you …to refresh your memory…so that you may be able to recall these things” (1:12–15). Rather than a letter, the work is more accurately characterised as a farewell testament, delivered by a teacher to his disciples with his imminent death in view, to ensure that his teaching is remembered after his death.
Farewell testaments can be found in Jewish literature (Gen 47–49; 2 Sam 23; 2 Esdras 14; 2 Baruch 57–86; Testament of Moses; Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs) as well as in the New Testament (John 14–16; Acts 20:17–38; and w there are elements in 2 Timothy).
The content of the teaching preserved in 2 Peter, however, is distant both from the teachings of Jesus (which the historical Peter would have heard) and from the first letter attributed to Peter. Rather than a letter penned by the disciple Peter, this book is a later work, written in the name of Peter in order to gain authority, to encourage believers at the end of the first century to hold fast to their faith.
A Letter in the Name of Jude
The name of the author of Jude, in Greek, is Ioudas. This is the same name as given to the infamous Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, whose crucial key role in the story of Jesus is featured in all four Gospels. English translations usually render this as Jude—probably to differentiate him from Judas Iscariot.
Four other men by this name also appear in the New Testament: a Galilean rebel (Acts 5:37), a disciple of Jesus (Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13; John 14:22), a resident of Damascus (Acts 9:11) and a co-worker of Paul (Acts 15:22, 27, 32).
The opening of the letter emphasises the authority of the writer as one who was close to Jesus: “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James”; he is noted amongst the brothers of Jesus at Mark 6:3 and Matt 13:55.
Could such a person as the brother of James and Jesus have written this work? It has a high quality of Greek syntax and vocabulary, which throws doubt on the claim; and the generalised formulaic and stereotypical language used has led many scholars to date it later in the first century, or even into the second century, by a believer employing the name of Jude to lend authoritative weight to his writing.
A reference to “the words which were previously spoken by the apostles” (17) probably indicates that the apostles were recognised as a distinct group by the time the document was created—suggesting a later rather than earlier date.
A Letter to the Hebrews
The author of Hebrewsis most certainly not Paul, as some ancient church writers maintained. Despite claims that the work was written by various individuals mentioned in other New Testament books (Apollos, Priscilla, Silvanus), it is not possible to be absolutely certain about the identity of the author.
The single reference to a known individual, Timothy, in the closing greetings (13:23), does not guarantee that the work came from Paul, an associate of Paul, or even a Pauline circle. The use of a refined Greek style, the intense engagement with Hebrew scripture, and the use of typological interpretation (8:1–7, 13; 10:1, 11–13) together suggest an educated Hellenistic Jew who had come to faith in Jesus as Messiah and was a powerful preacher of the Gospel.
This writer notes that the message of salvation was “declared at first through the Lord, [then] attested by those who heard him” (2:3), thus acknowledging a chain of tradition lying behind the work and indicating that it was probably written towards the end of the first century.
Likewise, the precise identity of the recipients of this letter cannot be known, although some things can be said about them in rather general terms. The reference to “city” (13:14) might suggest an urban context, whilst notes of the good works carried out by the recipients (10:34; 13:16) and a warning to avoid “the love of money” (13:5) might point to a group with a degree of wealth.
The author describes the recipients of this work as being “dull in understanding” (5:11) and needing someone to teach them (5:12). This is the task that is undertaken in this “word of exhortation” (13:22). The document which we label as a letter is more accurately understood as an extended sermon, offering a “word of exhortation”.
Keep awake! These are the last two words of a dramatic passage towards the end of a work entitled the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one. We know this by the name bequeathed by Christian tradition: “the Gospel according to Mark.”
I Keep awake!
Keep awake! are the last two recorded words spoken by Jesus in this long speech, given to his disciples outside the Temple in Jerusalem. This is the last long speech of Jesus recorded in this Gospel, uttered just hours before he is arrested and put on trial for blasphemy.
After his arrest, Jesus, the master story-teller, the wordsmith supreme, is uncharacteristically silent in this story (14:61, 15:5). He speaks only once at his trial before the Sanhedrin (14:62), and once again when brought before Pilate (15:2). So this speech to his disciples (13:5-37), and especially these last two words, keep awake!, are significant and important.
Keep awake: these two words set the theme for the four weeks of Advent, that start this,coming Sunday. Advent literally means towards the coming. It is what pregnant women do; they look towards the coming of the expected child. It is what young children do, as dinner time approaches; they look towards the coming of their working parents, returning home to share in the evening meal and associated rituals.
It is what we are called to do during these next four weeks; to look towards the coming of Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Day.
And as we look towards the coming, we are instructed to keep awake (13:37, and see also 13:35), to keep alert (13:33), be alert (13:23), and beware (13:9 and 13:5).
II Prophetic oracles and apocalyptic writings
The context for these exhortations is instructive. These words are uttered to people who will find themselves in the midst of a series of challenging crises. There will be wars and rumours of wars (13:7), earthquakes and famines (13:8), persecution and trials (13:9-11), ruptures within families (13:12) and unwarranted hatred (13:13). Sacred places will be despoiled (13:14) and religious imposters will flourish (13:22), while sufferings will be widespread (13:19) and a global environmental disaster will ensue (13:24-25).
These events are all standard elements in apocalyptic works of the time—writings which were created in the midst of events perceived as tribulations and catastrophes, out of which a message of hope was born. Apocalyptic writings developed after the return from Exile of the people of Israel, from the uprising led by the Maccabees in the 2nd century BCE onwards, and were particularly common in Jewish literature through until the century after the time of Jesus.
Apocalyptic emerged out of the oracles delivered by the prophets in earlier centuries, when kings were in power in Israel. The prophets spoke out against the injustices seen in their society. Their oracles spoke of the punishment that they believe God was going to bring on the people. Over time, through the experience of exile, captivity, and then return to the land under foreign rule, the message of doom was strengthened.
The prophets, and then the apocalyptic works, include many references that resonate with what Jesus is saying in his speech in Mark 13. The threat of future wars is noted in Isaiah 19:2, Jeremiah 51:46, and Daniel 7:21. Graphic prophecies in Daniel 9:25-26 and 11:40-45 intensify this portrayal of the wars that are to come.
2 Baruch 70:7-8 ramps this up even more: “And they shall come and make war with the leaders that shall then be left. And it shall come to pass that whoever gets safe out of the war shall die in the earthquake, and whoever gets safe out of the earthquake shall be burned by the fire, and whoever gets safe out of the fire shall be destroyed by famine.”
Hatred and falling away from God is included in a number of apocalyptic writings: 1 Enoch 90:22-27, 91:7, 93:9, Jubilees 23:14-17, and in one of biblical commentaries found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1QpHab 2.1-10. That sacred places will be despoiled is described in the Testament of Levi 15:1 and the Apocalypse of Elijah 2:41 4:21.
Suffering and distress are signs of what is to come in many books within apocalyptic elements: in the prophetic oracles of Jeremiah 30:7 and Joel 2:2, in another scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1 QM 1.11-12; and in the Testament of Moses 8.1.
Cosmic signs are associated with the coming time of doom. The Lord will shake the earth, according to Isaiah 13:13, 24:19; Joel 3:16; Amos 9:1,9-10; Haggai 2:6,20-22; and 2 Baruch 70:8, cited above; and see also Job 9:6.
Flashes of lightning are noted at Psalm 97:4, in prophetic oracles at Isa 62:1, Zech 9:14, and the Epistle of Jeremiah 61, as well as in 2 Baruch 53:9. What looks quite like an eclipse is regularly noted in prophetic oracles: Isaiah 13:10, 24:23, 34:4; Jeremiah 4:23; Ezekiel 32:7-8; Joel 2:10, 30-31; Amos 5:20; and Zephaniah 1:15. It also features in apocalyptic writings such as 1 Enoch 80:4; 4 Ezra 5:4-5; and the Testament of Moses 10:5 (and see also Job 9:7).
The darkness that ensues takes us back to the chaotic origins recounted in Gen 1:2, evoked again in Jer 4:23. Darkness is understood to be a sign of judgement in the prophets: Exodus 10:21-29, Isaiah 13:9-16, Jer 13:16, and Amos 5:18,20.
“If this is what life is like now”, the argument of apocalyptic writings usually goes, “with all of these catastrophic events tumbling one upon another — then because of our faith, we have confidence that the future will be a time when God will intervene, dramatically and affirmatively, to ensure that justice is done.”
And so, hope is affirmed, even as these works provide extensive lists of the terrible hardships and dramatic crises being experienced. Indeed, hope itself features in prophetic oracles (Isa 29:17, 38:18, and 51:5), as well as apocalyptic works such as 4 Ezra 6:25, 7:27, and 9:7-8, and 2 Baruch 70:9.
III Hope in the midst of despair
The apocalyptic signs and portents noted in Mark 13, whilst resonating with ancient experiences and expectations, also seem to have some resonances with our current situation, and the year of serial challenges that we have all experienced.
What has 2020 been like for you? For myself, I have experienced suffocating smoke, followed by the threat of a spreading fire in a nearby national park, clearly visible from my front door, even if still a few kilometres distant.
I myself was not directly damaged by the fires, but I have seen numerous frightening images and videos of firefighters standing firm right in the midst of terrible firestorms, heart-wrenching images of animals who have been hurt or whose habitat was destroyed, and so many tragic scenes of people surveying the devastation wrought by the fires to their homes and possessions. That in itself felt cataclysmic enough to be “apocalyptic”.
However, the fires, there came a very sudden and severe hailstorm, and then the frightening irruption of a pandemic bearing a virus that spread rapidly across the globe. Smoke and fire, hail and plague: it has felt like a massive year!
Since the impact of COVID-19 became evident in March, we have all experienced restrictions on how we gather and how we live, the stresses that this placed on our regular ways of living, and in some cases the fracturing of relationships that ensued. Some people have experienced illness or loss of friends or loved ones because of the pandemic.
Community grief is deep in some regions. Recovery from the bushfires in the midst of a pandemic is a hard task. Envisaging life in the “new normal” presents multiple challenges to everyone.
And the environmental warnings from what we have experienced are clear and strong. Our climate is changing, and the way it is impacting our society is significant and enduring. No longer are we faced with the task of mitigation; we need to take seriously the process of adaptation, at a rate more rapid, more,extensive, and more insistent than we might previously have considered. The “new normal” must be very, very different, indeed.
The challenge offered to us by this passage, as we read it this year, in the context of all that has transpired, is to hold fast to the note of hope, that Jesus offered his first disciples, and which holds still for us today.
In the midst of all these trials, Jesus affirms that the one who endures to the end will be saved (13:13). He assures his followers that the Lord has cut short those days (13:20), and looks to the time when the [Lord] will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds (13:27). Once again, the speech in Mark 13 draws from standard apocalyptic elements to provide assurance in the midst of despair.
How might these words of hope be the dominant notes for us at the end of 2020? Each one of us needs to work out how we respond, what we can do, who we can work with, how we can adapt. Reimagining the way we gather, worship, shop, visit, eat together, and travel, requires dedicated commitment over the coming months. It is a task for us all.
And if we continue to hold to that task, then perhaps this imaginative story might actually become the story of our future: The Great Realisation
Jewish people of the first century lived in one of two ways. Some were members of the nation of Israel which was occupied by a foreign military force, the Romans. (The Romans called this region Palestine). Others were members of a minority group of Jews who were permitted to exist in another nation. (These are known as Jews of the Dispersion).
Life in such situations demanded compromise. For Jews living in the Dispersion (also called the Diaspora), the degree of compromise might vary—but compromise was inevitable. For those living within Israel, the need for compromise was a constant irritant. Some groups, like the Sadducees and the priests, accepted the compromises and did well out of them. Many common folk simply made the best of the situation.
Others resented what was imposed on them. They looked back to an earlier time in the history of Israel, when the troops of another foreign force, the Seleucids, held power in Israel. An honoured group of Jews, the Maccabees, had led an armed insurgency which brought victory over the Seleucids in the years 167 to 164 BCE. For a time, Jews had ruled Israel once again.
From the time that Roman troops had occupied Palestine, in 63 BCE, there was tension. It would wax and wane according to the attitudes of the Jewish leaders and the political imperatives at work through the Roman governors. In the year 66, the governor, Florus, demanded money from the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. This was too much for some Jews; hostilities broke out in various places across Palestine. The war which resulted lasted eight years; in 70CE, the Temple in Jerusalem would be burnt to the ground, and by 74CE, all active Jewish resistance to the Romans would be quashed.
In this setting, amidst the battles fought in Galilee, Samaria and Judaea, apocalyptic hopes were inflamed. Many of the Jews actively fighting the Romans believed that their actions would help to usher in the long-promised kingdom of God. This kingdom would represent a new era, in which God would reign over Israel and foreign troops would be banished.
The term apocalyptic describes this attitude. It comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, which mean ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing’. It indicates a belief that God would act to unveil, or reveal, the new era.
Perhaps a significant number of the followers of Jesus also believed that the kingdom of God was drawing near, as Jesus had proclaimed some decades earlier, in the events of their own day. After all, Jesus spoke the language of apocalyptic and told stories about the kingdom that God had in store for his people.
Should the followers of Jesus, then, join with the rebel groups in rising up against Rome? Was the way to the kingdom to be won through conflict, martyrdom, and military victory? Or was there another way?
Remarkably, one writer chose to answer these questions by writing about the way which would have been chosen by Jesus. The earliest written account that we have for the life of Jesus, which opens with a declaration about the beginning of the good news of Jesus—which we know, by tradition, as “the Gospel according to Mark”—appears to deal with precisely these issues as it assembles and reshapes many of the stories told about Jesus.
It is strongly marked by apocalyptic overtones, from the urgent message which Jesus utters (the kingdom is at hand, 1:14–15) to his parting description of apocalyptic terrors (there will be earthquakes and terrors … you will be hated by all … there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation … the powers in the heavens will be shaken … they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory, 13:3–37).
This Gospel was written for first century Jews who were who were caught up in a fervent hope that the kingdom of God was soon to be ushered in, but who were also struggling with what it meant to follow the way of Jesus.
So Mark tells the story of Jesus, a person who submitted to his death, at the hands of the Romans, without raising any weapons in defence. The way of Jesus, according to Mark, was the way of suffering obedience and faithful discipleship. The answer to the questions posed lay in following the way of Jesus. And this Gospel particularly emphasises the necessity of faithful discipleship; follow me is an important refrain (1:17, 19; 2:14; 10:21).
The high cost of this following is also made clear in Jesus’ teachings. As the earliest readers of this Gospel struggled to live out their faith in a vibrant but challenging situation, they remembered and treasured stories about Jesus’ travels to Gentile lands (4:35–5:21; 6:45–8:13). During these travels, Jesus showed that the kingdom would include people who were regarded by many Jews as being unclean, dishonoured, and beyond salvation: disabled people, Gentiles, women, and mentally ill (i.e. demon-possessed) people.
So this account of Jesus is infused with drama and intensity as the story moves from one incident to the next. Yet, the whole Gospel is a carefully-crafted piece of literature. The structure of the work conveys the significance of Jesus and the necessity of faithful discipleship in the midst of suffering. (See my outline of this Gospel below.)
Mark writes to help believers understand what it means to follow Jesus and to take up our cross (8:34) in the time of expectant waiting as the kingdom is at hand (1:15). Just as Jesus crossed over the margins of society, so must we; as Jesus suffered, so may we; but as he lives, so may we know the presence of God’s chosen one with us. The Gospel story is an invitation to follow Jesus along this pathway.
This year we have the opportunity to listen to the story of Jesus as it is offered in this Gospel. Each Sunday, the lectionary offers a selection from the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one. May we listen, hear, engage — and be transformed.
An outline of the story told in the beginnings of the good news about Jesus
This blog draws on material in MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel for Year B, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012).