What do we know about who wrote the letters in the name of the apostles? (4)

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.

James 1:15-18 on papyrus 23, dated around 250 CE

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 Hebrews is 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”.

The ending of 2 Peter (3:16–18) and the beginning of 1 John (1:1-2:9)
on the same page of Codex Alexandrinus (dated around 400–440 CE)

For previous posts on the authorship of books in the New Testament, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/15/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-new-testament-gospels-1/ 

https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/15/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-new-testament-gospels-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/04/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-letters-attributed-to-paul-3/

Towards the Coming: the first Sunday in Advent (Mark 13)

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

See also The kingdom is at hand; so follow me. The Gospel according to Mark. – An Informed Faith (johntsquires.com)

The kingdom is at hand; so follow me. The Gospel according to Mark.

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).

Women in the New Testament (2): six problem passages


This post continues the discussion begun in https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/19/women-in-the-new-testament-1-the-positive-practices-of-jesus-and-the-early-church/

There are six passages in the New Testament which traditional (patriarchal) interpreters have considered to be warrant for the view that women hold an inferior, subordinate position in the church and in society.

In many cases, however, the constraints placed upon women in these passages might be said to be due to the particular circumstances in which the letter was written. They do not provide prescriptive commands that apply at all times and in all places to all women.

In what follows below, I offer some very general comments about each passage, and some links to more detailed discussion of the issues involved in interpreting these passages in the contemporary context (many are from the wonderful blog of Marg Mowczko).

1 Corinthians 14:33b-35. The invocations to women to be silent in church most likely form part of an interpolation into the text by a later writer, and were not written by Paul. However, even if this is not the case, the specific context of the letter suggests that there was a need for Paul to reign in the excesses of at least some of the women believers in Corinth.

He exhorts them to keep silent, as he also instructs others – presumably males as well as females – to keep silent at the appropriate times, when they prophesy, or when they speak in tongues, so that worship may be seemly and orderly. The primary concern is not the role accorded by gender, but the proper conduct of worship.

There’s a more detailed discussion at https://margmowczko.com/interpretations-applications-1-cor-14_34-35/

1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Paul informs women that head coverings were compulsory when they gathered in worship. Again, this instruction may relate to the particular situation in Corinth, where certain pagan religions allowed women almost unbridled freedoms and brought them into contempt of “mainstream” Corinthian society.

Perhaps Paul wrote as he did because he did not want Christian women to be dismissed as extremists in this same manner. An interpretation of his words about “headship” which differs from the traditional view, hinges on a linguistic argument that the Greek word may also mean “source”, and the fact that some of the other statements in this passage seem to support the claim of mutuality and equality which Paul elsewhere upholds.

On head coverings in this passage, see https://margmowczko.com/head-coverings-1-corinthians-11/

On the image and glory of God, see https://margmowczko.com/man-woman-image-glory-god-1-corinthians-11-7/

On what “head” means, see https://margmowczko.com/head-kephale-does-not-mean-leader-1-corinthians-11_3/

And there are more links collected at https://margmowczko.com/category/equality-and-gender-issues/1-corinthians-11-2-16/

1 Timothy 2:8-12. This passage further commands to women to keep silent in church may also be interpreted in the light of the specific context which is addressed in the letter. It appears that those addressed in this letter were under threat from a rather disruptive group of “heretics”, including some prominent women.

Grammatical analysis may suggest that the command is not a universal injunction with universal applicability, but a specific command to a particular situation.

The traditional interpretation of the words in 1 Timothy 2:13-15, that salvation comes to women only by childbirth, may also be debated in the light of linguistic and grammatical argumentation. This is not the only way the phrase can be translated.

For detailed discussions, see https://earlychristiantexts.com/what-1-timothy-says-about-women/, https://margmowczko.com/1-timothy-212-in-a-nutshell/, and https://margmowczko.com/a-woman-not-all-women-1-timothy-212/

There are more articles collected at https://margmowczko.com/category/equality-and-gender-issues/1-timothy-212/

Ephesians 5:21-33. The exhortation to wives to submit to their husbands has traditionally been taken in isolation as a principle valid for all times and places. However, the precise form which is employed in this text (the “household table”) was widely known in the ancient world. It was a way of keeping social order by establishing the superior and the inferior in any relationship.

The three “tables” in the household table of 1 Peter:
husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves

What is quite significant in Ephesians 5 is the way that such a traditional form is modified by the writer of this letter. Indeed, the key to interpreting the passage is sounded in 5:21, with the command to practice mutual submission in marriage (and in other relationships). The typical ancient pattern of inferior/superior is transformed by the Gospel, resulting in a radical equality and mutuality in relationship.

See also https://margmowczko.com/pauls-main-point-in-eph-5_22-33/ and https://www.patheos.com/blogs/allsetfree/2018/12/no-ephesians-5-doesnt-argue-in-favor-of-complementarianism/

Similar matters are to be brought to bear in an interpretation of 1 Peter 3:1-7, where the “household code” is used in a particular rhetorical manner (“apologetic”). The teaching of submission in marriage has a specific function related to the overall purpose of this letter, and need not be seen in isolation as a universalised teaching.

On “the weaker vessel”, see https://margmowczko.com/weaker-vessel-gender-justice-1-peter-3_7/

There are more articles on 1 Peter at https://margmowczko.com/category/equality-and-gender-issues/1-peter-31-7/

In these ways, then, long-standing interpretations of these passages can be challenged as patriarchal, and alternative feminist readings can be proposed from within a reform paradigm. The debate is not concluded, but has opened up important issues for further consideration. Responsible biblical interpretation can no longer avoid confronting the inherent biases and presuppositions of past generations of interpreters – and also of present interpreters.

The Lectionary: ordering the liberty of the preacher

I am a longterm lectionary devotee (as preacher, as teacher, as thesis supervisor, as blog writer). There is a richness in the lectionary that I appreciate. It has a clear structure, an observable order, a logic to its pattern, a rationale to the progress that it offers us, year by year, through the seasons of the (church) year.

There are also some frustrations with the lectionary: what stories are not included, what stories appear more than once (even if in different versions), where the passage starts (omitting verses that give “context”), where the passage ends (omitting significant follow-one verses), how the passage is edited (such as parts omitted), and so on.

But this is only to be expected: it is a human creation, subject to the idiosyncrasies and prejudices of its compilers, bound in many ways to the traditions of the church, limited by the number of Sunday’s that are to be found over three years. So I take it as it is, with its own biases as well as the benefits it offers.

Alongside this structure and order, the lectionary invites choice. It stimulates in me a consideration of the options available to me, and offers ways of using it that generates creativity in whatever I do as preacher, liturgies, or instructor. Every week, there are four readings listed in the lectionary. That itself suggests some choice (at least, in my denominational context).

However, the lectionary is far more than just four readings. It is a three-year creation, following a similar pattern in each of the three years, whilst still being designed to allow for a different focus each year.

*****

The lectionary is is based on a repeating year-long cycle, following a well-established tradition of tracing the Christian story through a familiar pattern. It starts by looking to the coming of Jesus (the four weeks of Advent), before celebrating the birth of Jesus (the twelve days of Christmas) and rejoicing in the revelation of God (a season of varying numbers of weeks during Epiphany–sometimes simply called Ordinary Time).

It continues by walking the pathway towards the cross (another six weeks, in Lent) and then remembering the pivotal events of the last meal of Jesus (Maundy Thursday), the death of Jesus (Good Friday), a time of waiting (Holy Saturday), and the empty tomb (Easter Sunday).

This is followed by a season celebrating the appearances of the risen one and the shaping of the early church (seven weeks in the season of Easter), reaching a climactic point of with the Day of Pentecost (the gift of the Spirit).

But this is only the halfway point. After these six months of richness, the ensuing six months (with the rather unfortunate name of Ordinary Time) allow time for tracing through in order the story told in one of the Gospels; or the narratives, prophetic works, and writings found in Hebrew Scriptures; or the string of Letters found in the New Testament.

So, whilst the first half of the year is based on key moments in the story of Jesus, the second half of the year is more devoted to follow through passages from a common source in their narrative order. It is sometimes referred to as a season of growth–growing in understanding of scripture, growing in discipleship and faith.

*****

The lectionary that we follow is the Revised Common Lectionary. You can access it at https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/ and read responses to a whole range of frequently asked questions at https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/faq2.php

This ecumenical lectionary is based on an earlier version, The Common Lectionary, which derives from the daily and weekly lectionaries used for centuries in the Roman Catholic tradition. And behind those lectionaries, there sits the Jewish custom of reading right through the Torah, the five Books of Moses, each year, with a particular selection of chapters set for each Sabbath day.

There are other options for lectionaries–the Narrative Lectionary, Uncommon Preaching, Beyond the Lectionary–but the Revised Common Lectionary is the most widespread, used across a good range of denominations, right round the world.

Christian lectionaries can be identified as far back as the fourth century. A lection is a passage to be read; a lectionary is thus an arrangement of passages to be read (and heard). Over time, in monasteries, lectionaries developed to provide sets of readings for the monks to hear and chant, as they gathered to worship at set hours throughout each day, and then further readings for worship each Sunday, right through the year.

The Jaharis Byzantine Lectionary,
held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, USA

Following a lectionary in our time is a good challenge to preachers—it invites them to step away from that clutch of familiar, beloved passages to which they would turn when considering “what shall I preach on?”, and challenges the preacher not simply to lapse back into familiar themes week after week.

It is also a fine resource for a community of faith. It clearly indicates “what is on next week”. It means that keen members can read the passages in advance of worship–perhaps even following a lectionary-based Bible reading guide like With Love to the World, for personal use or with a group. (See http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/).

It also means that visiting preachers can have an idea of what has just been preached on and what is coming after their visit, to avoid embarrassing “double-ups”.

It’s also fascinating to note just how often a passage that seems to be quite unrelated to the current context can “come alive” and offer striking or unforeseen insights into that situation. That’s a real gift that the lectionary offers!

*****

Sometimes, people talk about what is “set” in the lectionary. (I confess to have been guilty of this on occasions.) That seems to be the expectation, even the requirement, in some denominations with a highly structured (and some would say inflexible) approach to worship.

But my own denomination has roots traced to the “non-conformist” section of the church: protestants emerging from the Reformation, pietists flowing from the Wesleyan revival, a congregational emphasis growing from anti-establishment commitments of the past. Perhaps it is better for us to describe the passages available each week as being “offered” to us. They are offered; we need to consider how we accept them, how we use them, what they each offer to us.

In Year A, the focus is on the first Gospel, attributed to Matthew, alongside the ancestral narratives and account of the formation of Israel in the first five books of Hebrew Scripture. Following one or the other of these threads over a number of months can be an enriching experience for a community of faith.

In Year B, the focus is on the shortest Gospel, attributed to Mark, paralleled with passages drawn from the Writings of ancient Israel, whilst in Year C, the third Gospel, attributed to Luke, alongside a series of passages drawn from the prophetic tradition of Israel. These years each offer their own distinctives. There is enriching variety across the three years.

The fourth Gospel, attributed to John, is spread throughout these three years, at designated places throughout the year, whilst passages from the book of Acts are offered each year in the season of Easter (the weeks following after Easter Sunday). And passages from the various Letters found in the New Testament are spread across all three years.

In each of the three years, on every Sunday and special feast day, a selection from the Psalms is also offered. This ensures that over the course of three years, virtually all the Psalms are offered for Sunday worship.

The same can’t be said, unfortunately, for many other books of scripture. There are some striking omissions from the lectionary, when we look at the whole set of offerings. Many of the stories relating to women, for instance, do not appear. Some of the more difficult passages (the “texts of terror”, as they have been called) are missing. Some of the juicy parts of certain letters are missing.

Even with four readings each Sunday, 52 times each year, over three years, there still is not time for everything to be included. The only way to deal with “the whole Bible” is actually to undertake one of those “read the whole Bible in one year” programmes. That will mean reading quite a few chapters each and every day! (For instance, I found this website, that offers a range of possibilities: https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-reading-plan/)

*****

How do we respond to the offering of four Bible passages each and every Sunday? There is nothing worse, in my opinion, than a sermon that stodgily treats the OT, then the Epistle, the Gospel (and sometimes even the Psalm), all with 20 minutes! This slavish, literalist use of the resources provided in the lectionary is inevitably (in the negative sense) utterly deadly. It deadens my mind and depresses my spirit.

Likewise, there is nothing inviting or encouraging in a preacher who starts, “this week the lectionary offers hopeless passages, but I have to follow it, so here goes nothing”. It offers a structure and an order, but it is not a demand and a non-negotiable requirement, surely.

There is actually an abundance of choices when I consider the lectionary: do follow the Gospel? or take a pathway though the OT readings and the enriching theological ideas they offer? Might I focus on the psalms for a season, or a month? Should I take a letter when it appears, and examine it with care over 4 or 6 or 8 weeks? Or is it best, in this age of small attention rates and high expectation of novelty, simply to change it up week by week?

Of course, there is also the option to follow the lectionary in the key seasons—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter—then after the Pentecost celebration, in the long stretch of six months leading up to Advent, reshape worship with a local focus, or topical issues, or even a series on a theme or a book, and so on.

After 43 years I still find enrichment, challenge, and stimulation, and frustration, when I turn to the lectionary each week. And because the UCA is committed to “ordered liberty”, in worship, and in preaching, I am grateful for the order offered by the lectionary and the liberty possible in considering whether, why, and how the lectionary might shape what I end up doing.

*****

The Revised Common Lectionary can be accessed at https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/

See also https://uniting.church/2020-2021-lectionary-is-available-for-free-download/

There is a rich collection of resources to assist anyone using the Revised Common Lectionary, at The Text This Week, http://www.textweek.com/

A useful daily Bible reading guide, based on the RCL, is With Love to the World, at http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/

Invasion and colonisation, Joshua 3 and contemporary Australia

This coming Sunday, the lectionary offers us a passage from Joshua (3:7-17). It is the one and only time, in the three years of the lectionary, that we are invited to read from this book.

Joshua as history?

The story from Joshua tells, in a highly stylised way, of the entry of the people of God into the promised land. It is a key incident in the extended narrative history that stretches from Genesis to 1 Kings, recounting slavery in Egypt, the redemptive moment of Exodus, the giving of the Law, the long haul of wilderness wanderings, the battles waged to capture the land under the Judges, and the ultimate vindication of the establishment of the kingdom of Israel under King David.

Of course, it didn’t actually happen like this. For one thing, the book of Joshua is almost universally considered to be a wonderfully embellished and highly stylised narrative constructed by the priests in the sixth century BCE, as they prepared to lead exiled people of Israel in their return to the land from which they had been removed.

The book as a whole is marked by the schematic structuring that was so characteristic of priestly narratives. Structure and order was central to their style (see the various genealogies in various books of Hebrew scripture; the regular identifications of dates and locations; the repeated phrases throughout the “seven days” of Gen 1:1-2:3; the structure of the whole of the book of Numbers, as well as Joshua; and the repeated formulaic assessment of various kings in 1 Ki 11:6, 11:19, 14:22, 15:5, 15:11, 15:26, 15:34, 16:7, etc).

For another thing, we know that the division of Israel into the twelve tribes (3:12), so important in the story that the priests of Israel tell about the nation, was a later ideological construction of the priestly story-tellers—there were no neatly schematised tribes at the time of this incident.

And, of course, the whole story of Exodus, liberation, wilderness and conquest, is beset by multiple historical problems. There is no evidence in the records of the Egyptians about the escape of a large crowd of slaves, not any record of the destruction of the Egyptian Army in the Red Sea. There are no remains in the wilderness between Egypt and Israel that suggest that such a large crowd was travelling, for many years, through the desire—no remains of campsites, no graves of deceased people. And there is no archaeological evidence that correlates the biblical record of the capture of Jericho and other cities in the land. All we have is the story told in the Bible.

The form of the story we have was written down quite some centuries from when the event is alleged to have taken place. It serves an ideological purpose, as exiled people prepare to return to the land. As the 5th century exiles enter the land, the story of the wandering tribes entering the land centuries before provides encouragement and inspiration.

So it is not the historical reliability of this incident itself that is to the fore as the story is told. What we, in the post-Enlightenment era, understand to be “history”, is very different from the way that “history” was understood in the time when the story was written.

Joshua as saga

Rather than history, the narrative offers us a saga that invites us into a creative, thoughtful pondering of the story. It offers the people of Israel, exiles returning from Babylon, hope and assurance for their future. The best question we can ask of this story, is not, “did this actually happen?”, but rather, “what does this story offer to us, today?”

Central in the story is the ark of the covenant. The story tells of the time at Mount Sinai when God established a covenant with Moses and Israel, and the giving of the Law within that covenant relationship. The ark is a sign of the presence of God, continuing on with the people of Israel beyond Mount Sinai (Exod 25:10-22). God is not an absentee God, but very present amongst the people. The ark symbolises and reinforces that message.

The priests serve to mediate the presence of God. They carry the ark of the covenant, maintaining it, ensuring that it remains safe (Deut 10:8, 31:9, 25-26; Josh 3:3, 6, 8, 13). The story offers an indication that holy people are necessities in life; their mediation of the divine in the midst of the mundane is important. (As an ordained person, I confess that I have a vested interest in this claim!) As the priests shape the story, they make sure that priests play a central role in what is narrated.

Joshua as testimony to faith

The story contains a memorable description of God as “the living God” (3:10). The phrase appears elsewhere in a Hebrew Scriptures (Deut 5:26, 1 Sam 17:26, 36, 2 Kings 19:4, 16, Pss 42:2, 84:2, Isa 37:4,17, Jer 10:10, 23:36, Dan 6:20, 26, Hos 1:10) and also in the New Testament (Matt 16:16, 26:63, Acts 14:15, Rom 9:26, 2 Cor 3:3, 6:16, 1 Thess 1:9, 1 Tim 3:15, 4:10, Heb 3:13, 4:12, 9:14, 10:31, 12:22, Rev 7:2). The ark is a sign that this living God is present, active and engaged in the lives of the people.

A striking event demonstrates this: as the priests stand in the river, the waters stand still (3:16), and so the people are able to cross the river and enter the land. Of course, later on in Joshua, another miraculous event takes place, as the sun stands still (10:13). These were not actual events, but symbolic of divine intervention.

We might well compare the New Testament story of the earthquake and resurrection of the saints (found only in Matt 27) after the resurrection of Jesus. This, too, was not an historical event; it was a dramatic tale told to underline that God was active in the story.

The key aspect of the story of the escape from Egypt, as the story is found in Exodus 14-15, is the connection with the Feast of the Passover. The story that is attached to the Exodus actually serves a liturgical purpose; the priests have developed the story to reinforce and highlight the way that God was able to redeem the people—as in the story, so in the experience of the returning exiles.

Likewise, the key aspect of this story of the entry into the land, in Joshua 3, is not the actual physical wading across the river, but the assurance of faith that comes from the telling of the story of entering the land. God is not only the redeemer, who delivers the people into freedom, but the one who delivers the land to the people. The promise of the gift of land, first made to Abraham (Gen 12:1, 15:7, 17:8), then reiterated to Jacob (Gen 28:4,13, 35:12) and again to Moses (Exod 3:8,17, 6:4,8, 12:25, 13:5,11), is now coming to fulfilment.

Joshua as military victory

Indeed, the crossing of the river itself points to the symbolism that this story contributes to the overarching narrative. Leaving Egypt, the Lord God parts the waters, the people pass through, the army is bogged and drowned, and their escape from Egypt is secure. Entering Canaan, the Lord God once again stops the flow of the waters, the priests who carried the ark of the covenant enable the people to cross the river and enter the land, and their hold on the land is made secure. Josh 4:19-24 draws this comparison quite explicitly.

The parallel continues in the strong militaristic element, found in the list of the peoples whom “the living God who without fail will drive out from before you”. The text specifies “the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites” (3:10). Even before the battles are waged, the victories have been declared. This also provides a neat bookend: the army of Egypt is crushed in Exodus 15, the inhabitants of the land are subdued and defeated in Joshua 3.

What follows on from this story of entering the land is a highly schematic presentation of the military conquest of the land, in the rest of the book of Joshua. The invaders take the key areas in turn: first the Central area (chs. 6-8), then the Southern regions (chs. 9-10) followed by the Northern areas (ch 11). Chapter 12 then provides a summary of the conquest, listing “the kings of the lands whom the Israelites defeated”—a kind of victor’s gloating, “thirty one kings in all” (Josh 3:24).

The story of taking control of the land is then followed by a parallel schematic account of the allotment of the land to each of the tribes. The Transjordan (the land to the east of the Jordan River) is allotted in ch. 13; the Central regions in chs. 14-17; and then the peripheral regions to the north and south in chs. 18-19. Chapter 20 details the allocation of the five “cities of refuge”, whilst chapter 21 identifies the forty-eight towns which were allotted to the tribe of Levi, from which the priests came.

None of these are historical accounts. The schematic ordering carries symbolic weight, rather than being an historical account. Indeed, the twelve tribes of Israel were a later construction by the compiler of the narrative, rather than being an actual organisational principle at the time of any such conquest.

And even as the list of conquered peoples are identified, the savagery of this glorious moment is revealed. The memorial stones provide a reminder of the event (Josh 4:1-10), a reminder of the power of the invading force as they colonise the settled inhabitants of the land. We hear the story from the perspective of the victorious invaders—the people of Israel. The dispossession and death of so many Canaanites is simply “collateral damage” in this process.

Joshua and Israel, Britain and Australia, and the indigenous perspective

This is a story of land, invasion, massacre, colonisation, and victory. It is an ancient story which resonates strongly with the experience of indigenous peoples in the modern era of history. Time and time again, from late medieval times onwards, “explorers” set out from Western powers, “discovered” new lands, followed by “settlers” who came and established “civilisation”, most often by means of “subduing” the indigenous peoples, making them subservient to the “new order”—and even, in many instances, punishing those who resisted their new ways, even utilising means of killing the indigenous peoples.

This is the dynamic of the story of “Israel entering the promised land” which is told in Joshua, as well as the story of “establishing British civilisation in the land of Australia” which is the story of our own continent. The imposition of a new way of living by a more powerful force, the subjugation of those who already were living in the land, and the use of violence and murder to ensure that the new order was maintained and could flourish—all of this is in the history of Australia since 1788.

The story of invasion and settlement, defeat and decline, resonates with the contemporary Australian experience of the indigenous peoples of the continent and its islands. Which gives us pause for thought: how, then, do we hear and understand that story recounted in Joshua?

An invitation that you just cannot … accept!

We are all used to receiving invitations. Sometimes, those invitations come as an invitation that you just cannot refuse—the special performance that is a must-see, the party that you don’t want to miss, the occasion with a special friend that wouldn’t be the same without you being there.

This week, the lectionary provides us with a series of invitations. Do you want to refuse them? Are you going to say, “this is an invitation that I just cannot refuse” ? I hope not. Because I want to convince you, that you do have to refuse those invitations. In fact, you need to be clear that you are not going to accept any of these invitations.

The invitations are shaped by the way that the Christian Church has approached and interpreted its scriptures. The invitations are subtle and pervasive; they simply invite us to read and understand the passages in this week’s lectionary in the way that so many interpreters, throughout the history of the church, have interpreted these passages. The invitations invite us to adopt an anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, antisemitic way of reading these texts.

My exhortation this week is: don’t accept those invitations. Don’t get drawn into traditional ways of interpreting scripture that lead down the pathway of negative stereotyping of Jews. Don’t get caught in the traditions of antisemitism that grew and flourished across the many centuries of the existence of the church. Don’t judge negatively, don’t demean or deride, don’t open the door for destructive depictions and careless caricatures of our Jewish sisters and brothers.

The first invitation comes in the reading from Hebrew Scripture that is set in the lectionary this week (Exodus 20:1-20). It is an invitation to reflect on the heavy burden of the Law, the weight of demands that were placed on the people of Israel through the giving of the Law. It is a recounting of the Ten Commandments, and the importance of following them to the letter—to have “the fear of God” instilled in us to obey them and not sin (Ex 20:20).

The second invitation comes in the section of the letter which Paul wrote to the Philippians (Phil 3:4-14). It is an invitation to cast the whole of Jewish scripture and tradition as being of no value whatsoever. In this part of his letter, Paul reflects on his upbringing, and has a very colourful description for what he learnt, as a member of Israel, a Pharisee devoted to living a blameless life under the Law. Of all that he learnt as he was raised in this way, Paul writes, “I regard them as rubbish”—the ultra-polite way that the NRSV translates what, in Greek, reads literally as “I consider them all to be bullshit!” (Phil 3:8).

And the third invitation comes in the parable of Jesus which is included in ‘the book of origins’, and which its author (by tradition, the evangelist Matthew) interpreted as a polemic against the Jewish authorities (Matt 21:33-46). The parable is set in a vineyard. That’s an age-old symbol for the people of Israel—indeed, the lectionary offers us two passages from Hebrew Scripture (Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:7-15) which show how old and enduring this imagery was.

The parable that Jesus tells recounts the hard-hearted way in which the tenants in the vineyard (a traditional symbol for the people of Israel) reject the messengers sent to them by the landowner (seen as a symbol for God), culminating in the atrocious treatment meted out to the landowner’s son (whom we presumably are meant to identify as Jesus, son of God), who is put to death. The punchline that Jesus crafts for this parable is potent: “the kingdom will be taken away from you” (Matt 21:43), he tells “the chief priests and the Pharisees” (Matt 21:45).

Do not be taken in by these three invitations! Do not succumb to even the merest whisper of anti-Jewish sentiment as you reflect on these passages! Do not be shy to decline these “invitations you cannot refuse”!

Why?

First: because the Law was given, not to be a burden, a heavy weight, a set of endless demands; the Law was given as a gift. In the Law, Israel was given a way of strengthening the Covenant relationship with God, of providing practical means for remaining in covenant relationship with God. No Jew regards the Law as a burden; universally, the Law is celebrated as a gift, and valued as a way to ensure a healthy and vibrant relationship with God.

The Ten Commandments need to be read in the context of the story as it transpired over time. The giving of the Law (Exodus 20) sits in the midst of the stories about Moses ascending the mountain, encountering God, and formalising the covenant relationship with God (Ex 19:16-25; and Ex 24:1-18). Before the Law is given (Ex 20), the Covenant is formalised (Ex 19). The requirements of Law follow on from the gift of Covenant. In this way, the Law itself becomes a gift—a way to ensure the strength of the Covenant.

And these scenes of Moses making the covenant with God and then ratifying it with all the people, need to be seen in the context of the still larger scope of the storyline, which tells of a series of covenants: with Noah, with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob (and on into future centuries, with David, with Solomon, through Jeremiah).

It is the covenant which is the primary context: the means by which God chooses, nurtures, and remains in relationship with Israel. The Law comes as the consequence of the gift of the Covenant; the Law provides a clear set of guidelines for maintaining that covenant and continuing in relationship with God.

That Law is embraced, valued, and celebrated in Jewish tradition and scripture. Just look at how it is described in the Psalm offered in this week’s lectionary selection, where the commandments and precepts of the Law are praised as “perfect, reviving the soul … sure, making wise …right, rejoicing the heart … clear, enlightening the eyes … true and righteous altogether … more to be desired are they than gold .. sweeter also than honey” (Ps 19:7-10).

Second: because the Jewish upbringing and Pharisaic practices that Paul had, were never totally jettisoned, even though this one colourful comment seems to suggest this. Paul has many ways by which he demonstrates that his Jewish upbringing, his years of study as a Pharisee, his intense dedication to the Law, all still continue to shape his life, his words, his actions, his very being, right through the years that he was a faithful follower of Jesus.

Paul had an extensive knowledge of Hebrew scripture; we see this demonstrated at many place in his letters (Rom 1:16–17; 3:9–20; 4:1–25; 9:6–11:12; 11:25–27; 1 Cor 1:19–25; 2:6–16; 2 Cor 8:15, 9:9; Gal 4:21–31) as well as in the reports of his preaching in Acts (Acts 13:32–41; 17:2–3; 26:22–23; 28:25–28). The whole argument that is developed in his letter to the Romans is an exposition of a key affirmation, made at Rom 1:16-17, which itself quotes and draws from the words of Habakkuk, a late 7th century Israelite prophet (Hab 2:4). That argument engages consistently and in complex ways with the Hebraic traditions and understandings that were so central to Paul’s spiritual life. He uses pearl-stringing, argument by analogy, diatribal argumentation, midrashic storytelling, and other techniques which he undoubtedly learnt from his Pharisaic teachers.

(See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/20/spirit-and-scripture-in-romans-rom-8/)

In writing to the Galatians, Paul asserts that the Law serves as a paidagogos (3:21–24)—a position in Greek society in which a tutor both instructs and disciplines a young man until he reaches his maturity. So Paul does not portray the Law as obsolete and completely irrelevant and; rather, he insists that “the Law is not opposed to the promises of God” (3:21). In fact, he supports his position with an argument drawn from “the Law”, that is, Hebrew scripture—the accounts of the two children of Abraham (found in Gen 16 and 21) provides an allegory for the two covenants made by God (4:21–31). And in Romans he affirms that “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12).

There are many other examples of how Paul uses the debating techniques and reflects the theological insights that he learnt during his formative years, right through into his mature years, even when he was the most intense and most passionate follower of Jesus. So let’s not get caught into the trap of adopting an anti-Jewish attitude and claiming that we are simply following the lead of the Apostle Paul. His understanding was far deeper than that, and his engagement with the issue much more complex. (We might well say that his claim that his Jewish past was “bullshit” to him, is itself a claim that is, well, “bullshit”!)

Third: because the parable of Jesus is not intended to be simply an anti-Jewish polemic without any further refinement of understanding. It is true that, in the Gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus making some strident accusations and engaging in some vigorous debate with the Jewish authorities. But does he really believe that no faithful Jew will ever again enter the kingdom of heaven?

We need to read in context the rhetoric that Matthew places on the lips of Jesus in this Gospel. Judaism was in a state of flux as people lived under the continuing oppression of Roman rule. Guerilla groups initiated battles with the Romans on and off throughout the first century. These encounters intensified from 66 CE onwards. The destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was a pivotal moment. Evidence indicates that, during this time, there were various sectarian groups within Judaism who were contesting with each other for recognition and influence. Vigorous polemic and robust debate were not uncommon.

During this period, the Pharisees were becoming increasingly important as an alternative to the Temple cult, and emerging as the dominant Jewish religious movement. Their power base was moved from Jerusalem and spread throughout the area. When the Temple was destroyed, they moved the vacuum that was created, and became even more dominant. (From this time on, Pharisees evolved into the “Rabbis”, and they developed the kind of Judaism that became dominant through to the present time.)

The kind of debates that we see in the Gospels—debates where Jesus goes head-on with the Pharisees—need to be understood in this context. Jesus was not “cutting the cord” of his connection with Judaism. He was advocating, vigorously and persistently, for the kind of faith that he firmly believed in—and attacking the Pharisees for their failure, in his eyes, to adhere to all that they taught. And the accounts that we have of these debates come from years later than when they actually occurred; years that had been strongly shaped by the polemic and antagonism of the intervening decades.

Older academic Christian scholarship and popular Christian tradition both contain a preponderance of the stereotype that the Judaism of the time of Jesus was a harsh, legalistic, rigid religion—precisely because of the claimed “hardness of heart” of the Pharisees in their debates with Jesus. This stereotype was heightened by an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament caricature of the Pharisees as hypocritical legalists who made heavy demands but had no soul commitment to their faith. It was claimed that they were the leaders of a static, dying religion.

This stereotype has been completely demolished in recent decades—both through the growing interaction between Christian and Jewish scholarship, and also through a more critical reading of the relevant primary texts. I am very pleased that my own church, the Uniting Church in Australia, has made it very clear that we do not adhere to these inaccurate and hurtful stereotypes.

(See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/key-papers-reports/item/1704-jews-and-judaism and the Statement linked at that page.)

Indeed, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does nothing to overturn the Law or to encourage his followers to disregard the Law; he is portrayed as a Jew who keeps Torah to the full. Virtually all of his criticisms of the Pharisees can be understood within the framework of first century debates over the meaning and application of Law. The memory of Jesus in this Gospel is as a Torah-abiding Jew, who nevertheless stakes out a distinctive position within the context of those contemporary debates.

(See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/)

Later written accounts of Jesus reflect the intensity of fervent debate as he encountered the scribes and Pharisees (see especially Luke 11:37-54; Matt 23:1-36). We should not interpret the parable of Jesus in Matt 21 as an outright condemnation of Judaism as a whole. As he debates the Jewish leadership of his day, he makes strong statements. But let’s not claim that Jesus validates any sense of anti-Jewish or antisemitic attitude.

(See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/01/producing-the-fruits-of-the-kingdom-matt-21/)

(See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/18/easter-in-christian-tradition-and-its-relation-to-jewish-tradition/)

Reimagining—the spirit of our times

The city where I live, Canberra, has a regular annual festival. Each year, a large section of a central park is planted out with bulbs, around this time of the year. Lots of tourists come in September, joining with many of the residents of Canberra, to enjoy the festival known as Floriade.

The bulbs that have been planted grow, silently and stealthily, throughout winter, so that when spring arrives, they are fully grown plants, ready to burst into a display of spectacular colours—in time for hundreds of thousands of people to walk through, enjoying the display.

507,550 people saw the display in 2019 (see https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6456817/floriade-breaks-attendance-record/)

That’s not going to happen this year. The ACT Government wisely decided that it would not be sensible to plan for a large, crowded event in September—with the uncertainty that crowds of people would be able to gather, even in the outdoors.

So they have implemented Floriade Reimagined. Bulbs have been offered to community groups, to be planted at dispersed locations right around Canberra. Those bulbs are to be planted in locations that are visible from the road. Now, in September, people are able to drive around Canberra and enjoy the displays of flowers in many community locations. (See https://floriadeaustralia.com)

Alongside this, in the southern part of Canberra, there has been an annual festival in Tuggeranong, called, quite appropriately, SouthFest. This has been based around the Tuggeranong Town Centre in past years, with many stall lining the streets, and a festive atmosphere pervading the day.

But this year, again because of COVID-19, it has not been possible to plan for and hold the usual festivities. (See https://the-riotact.com/southfest-organisers-make-early-call-to-cancel-2020-festival/379080)

But SouthFest, alongside Floriade, has also been reimagined. And that’s where the Tuggeranong Uniting Church comes into the picture. They took their annual Spring Fair, and in 2019, gave it a strong sustainability focus. This year, they once again reimagined that that spring fair would look like. And so, SpringFest was born.

Tuggeranong, where Elizabeth is serving as Minister, submitted an expression of interest for Floriade Reimagined, and was awarded a set of bulbs. A crew of volunteers has worked hard to dig garden beds, build up the soil, and plant the bulbs. (See the picture, and https://www.insights.uca.org.au/tuggeranong-to-provide-a-symbol-of-hope-during-floriade/)

Now, in September, the Tuggeranong Uniting Church is surrounded with colour, as the bulbs burst into flower.

And this church, along with the Yarralumla Uniting Church (pictured below), is on the visiting list for Floriade Reimagined.

And Tuggeranong Uniting Church, under the enthusiastic and energetic leadership of Elizabeth, along with a fine team of dedicated volunteers, has partnered with SEE-Change to have a modified, downscale (but still very much appreciated) SouthFest happening, in the grounds at Erindale. The sustainability focus of 2019 was kept and expanded in SpringFest 2020.

SEE-Change, a local sustainability group, ran a series of workshops, in the community garden and the community hall, on topics relating to sustainability: composting, worm farms, bee keeping, and reducing plastic.

Meanwhile, in and around the church auditorium, the Red Dove Pre-Loved Op Shop was selling second hand clothes, the church was offering Devonshire teas and BBQ sandwiches, the Girls Brigade were selling delicious cakes, reuseable bags to replace single use plastic bags were on sale, as was a wide range of potted plants, and there was a Beeswax stall and assorted other goods for sale.

Why, the COVID Fairy was even in attendance (ensuring that all COVID Safe precautions were being adhered to). And she brought Senator Katy Gallagher along, to open the proceedings!

Floriade has reimagined itself. SouthFest has reimagined itself. COVID-19 has been the impetus. Tuggeranong Church has reimagined how it can partner with community groups to provide an enjoyable and inviting community event.

Can the church as a whole, similarly, reinvent itself? Can we take the stimulus of the present time to move out into the future with renewed creativity, imagination, and community engagement? Can we demonstrate that we are capable of the spirit of the times—reimagination?