The historical-critical method, also known as higher criticism, investigates the origins and nature of ancient texts in order to understand the world behind the text. While often discussed in terms of Hebrew and Christian writings from ancient times, historical criticism has also been applied to other religious writings from various parts of the world and various periods of history. (It applies to secular documents as well of course.) The primary goal of the historical-critical method is to discover the text’s primitive or original meaning in its original historical context. The next stage is to explore the text’s contemporary meaning.
Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. (1940 – 2014), who served as professor of New Testament and chair of the Biblical Studies department at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, formerly known as Weston Jesuit School of Theology, defined biblical historical criticism as “the effort at using scientific criteria, historical and literary, and human reason to understand and explain, as objectively as possible, the meaning intended by the biblical writers.”
As we have seen in the last four weeks, biblical texts contain a variety of literary forms such as history, symbol, folklore, and presumed or imagined historical scenarios. The Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke are good examples.
One legacy of biblical criticism in U.S. American culture was the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s and 1930s. Fundamentalism in the USA began, at least partly, as a response to the biblical criticism of the nineteenth century. Some fundamentalists believed that historical-critical believers had invented an entirely new religion “completely at odds with the Christian faith.” There were also conservative Protestants who accepted biblical criticism. This too is part of biblical criticism’s legacy.
In terms of my own Roman Catholic Christian tradition, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Roman Catholic theology avoided biblical criticism because of its reliance on rationalism, preferring instead to engage in traditional exegesis, based on the narrow-focused works of the “Church Fathers.” The Catholic Church showed strong opposition to biblical criticism during that period. Frequent political revolutions, bitter opposition of “liberalism” to the Church, and the expulsion of religious orders from France and Germany, made the Catholic Church suspicious of any new intellectual currents.
The Roman Catholic dogmatic constitution Dei Filius (“Son of God”), approved by the First Vatican Council in 1871, rejected biblical criticism, reaffirming that the Bible was written by God and that it was inerrant. But that began to change in the final decades of the nineteenth century when, for example, the French Dominican Marie-Joseph Lagrange (1855–1938) established a school in Jerusalem called the École prátique d’études biblique, which became the ÉcoleBiblique, to encourage study of the Bible using the historical-critical method.
At the same time, my alma mater the Catholic University of Leuven was exploring the historical-critical methodology that would become its hallmark. A major step was taken in 1889 with the creation of a Leuven course entitled “Critical History of the Old Testament” by Albin Van Hoonacker (1857 – 1933). This course was an early attempt to apply the historical-critical method to biblical texts. At a time when the historical-critical exploration of the Bible among Catholics was still highly controversial, Van Hoonacker became the first professor to teach an historical-critical understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. On 18 November 1893, Pope Leo XIII, pope from 1878 to 1903, promulgated the encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus (“The most provident God”). That letter gave the first formal authorization for the use of critical methods in biblical scholarship.
The situation changed greatly, however, after Leo’s death and the election of Pope Pius X in 1903. A very staunch traditionalist, Pius X, who was pope from 1903 to 1914, saw biblical criticism as part of a growing and destructive “modernist” tendency in the Church. The École Biblique was shut down and Lagrange was called back to France.
Finally, in 1943, the lights came back on. Pope Pius XII, pope from 1939 to 1958, issued the papal encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (“Inspired by the Holy Spirit”) sanctioning historical criticism and opening a new epoch in Catholic critical scholarship. The dogmatic constitution Dei verbum (“Word of God”), approved by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965 further promoted biblical criticism. Pope Paul VI was pope from 1963 to 1968.
Raymond E. Brown (1928 – 1998), Joseph A. Fitzmyer (1920 -2016), and Roland E. Murphy (1917 – 2002) were the most famous U.S. Catholic scholars to apply biblical criticism and the historical-critical method in analyzing the Bible: together, they authored The Jerome Biblical Commentary in 1968 and The New Jerome Biblical Commentary in 1990.The latest version, The Jerome Biblical Commentary for the Twenty-First Century was published in 2022, edited by John J. Collins, Gina Hens-Piazza, Barbara Reid OP, and Donald Senior CP (1940 – 2022).
And so we move forward in faith and understanding.
Opening observations: The Gospel According to John differs in several ways from Mark, Matthew, and Luke in style and content. John’s Gospel omits a large amount of material found in the Synoptic Gospels like the temptation of Jesus, Jesus’ transfiguration, and the institution of the Eucharist. The sermon on the mount and the Lord’s prayer are not found in John’s Gospel. Nor do we see proverbs and parables. We see, rather, symbolic discourses. John uses the language of symbolic “signs” to talk about Jesus’s miracles because they point beyond themselves to provide insight into Jesus’ identity.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is clearly the Wisdom of God, the source of eternal life, and, very importantly, still continually living with us in the community of faith.
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus’ public ministry appears to extend over a period of at least three years. During that time, he went, several times from Galilee to Jerusalem. The Synoptics, on the other hand, have Jesus making just one journey to Jerusalem — his final one.
The Gospel of John also includes a considerable amount of material not found in the Synoptics. All the material in John chapters 2 to 4, Jesus’ early Galilean ministry, is not found in the Synoptics. Visits of Jesus to Jerusalem before his passion week are mentioned in John but not found in the synoptics. The raising from the dead of Lazarus, in John 11, is not mentioned in the Synoptics, and the extended Farewell Discourse, in John 13 – 17, is not found in the Synoptic Gospels.
The Gospel of John uses a “post-resurrection” point of view. The author looks back on the Jesus events and emphasizes the inability of his disciples to understand the things that were happening at the time they occurred. See for instance: John 2:17-22, where there are obvious references to Jesus’ Resurrection, “He was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body, and after he rose from the dead his disciples remembered.” See John 12:16-17, “At the time his disciples did not understand this but later, after Jesus had been glorified, they remembered…” And see John 20:9, “Until this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Perhaps we today do not always clearly understand? We do indeed, like the early disciples, grow in our faith and understanding.
The Gospel of John’s prologue (John 1:1-18) is most likely an elaboration of an early hymn. Interestingly, the rest of John’s Gospel does not speak of Jesus as the pre-existent, creative Word. Many biblical scholars suggest, therefore, that the prologue was added after the Gospel of John had been completed.
Authorship and locality: The old tradition, from the second century, was that the author of John’s Gospel was the apostle John, son of Zebedee. Most contemporary scholars are not of this opinion. Scholars such as Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998) believed that the original author of an oral tradition, that evolved into the Gospel of John, was a companion of Jesus. That author was the “Beloved Disciple,” who formed a community, most probably in Ephesus. Scholars call this “the Johannine community.” An oral tradition of eye-witness recollections of the Beloved Disciple evolved in that community and began being written down around 90 CE. The final redaction occurred ten to twenty years later, giving us a gospel composition date of between 90 and 110 CE. We don’t know who the “Beloved Disciple” was. There is quite a variety of scholarly opinions: a truly unknown disciple, the Apostle John, James the brother of Jesus, or even Mary the Magdalene.
Scholars like Pheme Perkins, at Boston College, emphasize, that the author of John’s Gospel presumes that much of the narrative about Jesus and its people and places was already well known to the Johannine audience. They would have been familiar with the various titles for Jesus, with Baptism, Eucharist, and the Spirit. They were already Christians, entering the second century of Christian life and experience.
The Fourth Gospel then is a call to early Christians to re-examine their lives as followers of the Risen Lord. That challenge of course rings true for us today as well.
John 13:1-4 is the big turning point in this gospel. Jesus’s “hour” had come “for him to pass from this world to the Father…he had come from God and was returning to God.” The occasion in John 13 is the Last Supper. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John has no mention of Eucharist, but Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” (John 13:15) (Perhaps we forget that people wore simple sandals back then and people’s feet got really dirty. Hebrews did not wear sandals indoors. They removed them upon entering the house and washed their feet.)
Rereading this scripture, I think we sometimes forget that Jesus also said: “Whoever welcomes the one I send, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (John 13:20) This is the key.The author of John’s Gospel did not mention the Eucharistic bread and wine because he wanted to emphasize that Jesus is present in the Community of Faith. Jesus promises that his Spirit (the Advocate) will be with them. (John 14:15-16, 15:26, 16:15)
For centuries, in my Roman Catholic tradition, people have debated about Jesus’s eucharistic “Real Presence.” John’s Gospel is very clear: the primary real presence of Jesus is in the community. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches (John 15); and we are to love one another. The branches cannot survive without the vine. But the vine cannot survive without the branches. The profound mystery of life. No one can do it alone.
In Mark, Matthew, and Luke the stress was on divinity taking on humanity. That is true in John as well, of course. In John, however, we see another emphasis: humanity taking on divinity. God is truly with us: in the very heart of our being.
Some of the old images of God might no longer speak to contemporary people; but God has not abandoned us. We should not abandon God. We simply need to reflect on better ways of conceptualizing and speaking about our experiences of the Divine. We all have a theological task, because theology is faith seeking understanding.
I find it especially noteworthy that John’s account of the crucifixion does not stress Jesus as one who suffers, as we saw for example in Mark 15.25–39. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is the one who is exalted, “lifted up” in his moment of glorification. Jesus in the Gospel of John is courageous and confident.
In John 13 to John 16, Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent departure, followed by his “high priestly prayer” in John 17. Here we see a very strong and confident Jesus. “I have glorified you on earth and finished the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, it is time to glorify me…” (John 17:4-5)
John’s final chapters contain the accounts of Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. The Jesus who stands before Pilate is courageous and strong. On the way to Golgotha Jesus carries his own cross. He does not need the help of a Simon of Cyrene as we saw in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Also in John, unlike the other three gospels, Jesus’ crucifixion occurs on the day of preparation of the Passover (John 19:14) rather than on the Passover holiday itself. Here Jesus prepares himself for the departure to the Father and seems to be in complete control of his destiny, even to the extent of commending his mother to the Beloved Disciple (John 19:26–27).
The Gospel of John concludes with the discovery of the empty tomb by the women and other disciples (John 20:1–10), Jesus’s appearance to them (John 20:11–18), and the narrative of “Doubting” Thomas (John 20.24–29). The last two verses of John 20 contain what many scholars think may have been the original gospel’s ending: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)
Appendix: Many scholars consider John 21 to be a later addition to the JohannineGospel. It not only contains resurrection appearances in Galilee, but it also emphasizes the authority of the Beloved Disciple, who likely died a normal death in contrast to Peter’s martyrdom (see John 21.15–23). Quite possibly, this appendix reflects a controversy among the second or third generation of believers’, who may have considered the Beloved Disciple inferior to Peter. Chapter 21 clearly reinforces the Beloved Disciple’s role as the authorized witness of the Jesustradition for the Johannine community.
I subtitled today’s For Another Voice reflection “Courageous and Confident Jesus.” That is how I perceive Jesus in John’s Gospel. With courage and confidence, Jesus approached the end of his life. And with the same courage Jesus spoke out against the hypocrisy of the religiously self-centered and arrogant. In conflicts with Judean religious leaders he stressed that religiosity is not faith.
Today we encounter the same kinds of hypocrisy. We are confronted with unChristian religiosity from religious and political leaders.
As members of Jesus in the community of faith, may we sustain each other with courage and confidence.
That is John’s message as we prepare for Easter 2023.
Next week, because people have asked me, some brief observations about historical-critical biblical understanding.
While the Gospel of Mark focused on the mostly Gentile Christian community in Rome and the Gospel of Matthew was more focused on the Hebrew-Christian community in Antioch, the Gospel of Luke stresses that Christianity is a way of life for Gentile as well as Hebrew-Christian believers; and that it warrants legal recognition in the Roman Empire.
The Gospel of Luke therefore stresses building bridges between groups rather than polarization. Yes, Luke is about healing and reconciliation: actions greatly needed in our own contemporary society.
Luke’s author was a highly educated Gentile Christian who came from a thoroughly Greco-Roman environment. Unlike Matthew’s author he was not well-grounded in the Hebrew tradition. Scholars speculate on whether his “ordered account” was written for a Christian community in Antioch or some other location in Asia Minor, like Ephesus or Smyrna. Luke and Acts of Apostles make up a two-volume work often called simply Luke – Acts; and they are addressed to the “most excellent” Theophilus, who was presumably a Gentile of some social standing. Interestingly, we never hear about Theophilus again, neither in Scripture nor anywhere else in ancient literature. The author of Luke -Acts wrote to Theophilus to assure him “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4).
Some writers say the unknown author of the Gospel of Luke may have admired Paul (c. 5 – c. 64 CE), but in many ways Luke does not resonate with Paul. Yes, Paul was a pharisee and believed in the resurrection of the dead, and he certainly believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Paul, however, did not need an actual physical resuscitation of a corpse in order to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. According to Paul, the earthly body: the physical body had to die in order for the heavenly or the spiritual body to be born. “A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up.” (See 1 Corinthians 15.)
Luke’s portrayal of Jesus raised from the dead, however, is not Pauline. It is highly imaginative and Jesus is portrayed more like a resuscitated corpse, than someone transformed into a new form of life. Luke’s post-resurrection Jesus tells the disciples to touch him: “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” (Luke 24:39) Then Luke’s Jesus asks the disciples if they have anything to eat. “They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.” (Luke 24:42 and 43) Acts continues the story of Christianity in the 1st century, beginning with the ascension of Jesus. Later chapters tell of Paul’s conversion, his mission in Asia Minor and the Aegean, and finally his imprisonment in Rome, where, as Acts ends, he awaits trial.
For background documentation, Luke’s author drew from the Gospel of Mark, the sayings collection called the “Q” source, and a collection of material called the “L” for Luke source, an oral or textual tradition. The author is not named in either the Gospel of Luke nor Acts of Apostles, but a tradition dating from the 2nd century suggested that the author was the Luke who was a companion of Paul. While this view is still occasionally put forward, many biblical scholars today question that supposition. Textual analysis suggests that Luke-Acts was written not earlier than 80 – 90 CE. It uses Mark, as a source, looks back on the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and does not show any awareness of the letters of Paul, which began circulating late in the first century. The text was still being revised well into the 2nd century.
Last week I stressed that Matthew saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew history. He began his infancy narrative with a genealogy of Jesus from Abraham down to Joseph and Mary. Luke, on the other hand, understands Jesus as the high point in all of human history. His genealogy is presented at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and runs from Joseph to Adam. Luke is also more Mary-oriented than Joseph-oriented. In Matthew’s infancy narrative the light is on Joseph. In Luke’s account, it is Mary who shines. She is the one who hears and keeps God’s word.
What strikes me, as I re-read this gospel? Three themes hold my attention: women, building bridges, and religious hypocrisy.
WOMEN: In Luke Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39), a 12-year-old girl (Luke 8:41-42, 49-56); a woman with a 12-year infirmity (verses 43-48); and a woman who had been crippled 18 years (Luke 13:10-17). In Luke we see Mary the Magdalene, an early disciple of Jesus. She is mentioned by name twelve times in the canonical gospels. In 2016, Pope Francis made July 22 Mary the Magdalene’s universal liturgical feast day and said she should be called the “Apostle to the apostles.” That designation was actually first made by Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) in the thirteenth century.
In Luke, Mary the Magdalene sits before Jesus and listens to him. Her sister Martha complains to Jesus that Mary should be helping her with serving. Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha…it is Mary who has chosen the better part.” (Luke 10:38-42) In the Resurrection accounts, women and not men are most important: Women were among those who observed the crucifixion (Luke 23:27, 49). Women prepared spices to anoint Jesus’ body (verses 55-56). Women were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty (Luke 24:1-3) and angels told them Jesus had been raised from the dead (verses 4-8). Women were the first to proclaim the Resurrection to Jesus’ other disciples (verses 9-11).
Reading these verses in Luke, I thought how ironic it is that the question of women’s ordination is still being debated in the RCC. And I also had to reflect on the misogyny of Pope Gregory I (c.540 – 604), who began the distorted portrayal of Mary the Magdalene as a repentant prostitute and a promiscuous woman. Not surprisingly, Gregory I, who was pope from 590 to 604 CE, believed that women are only fit either for prostitution or for maternity. Despite that, his supporters later proclaimed him “St. Gregory the Great.” Some “saints” were very strange people.
BUILDING BRIDGES NOT WALLS: Luke’s stress on peace-making implied a new relationship with the Roman Empire. Dialogue had to start, and destructive polarization had to end. In Luke’s infancy narrative, angelic messengers proclaim: “Good news of great joy for all people. To you is born this day . . . a Savior! . . Peace on earth among those whom God favors!” (Luke 2:10-11,14) These words echo and go far beyond the Imperial Roman monument inscriptions that had praised Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, as “god” and “savior.” Luke hereby stresses that Jesus had more fully and more uniquely completed the work of the first Roman emperor.
Thinking about building bridges, later in this gospel, Luke offsets the fact that Jesus was executed by the Romans, by having the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate declare Jesus innocent three times (Luke 23:4,14,22). Only Luke, unlike Mark and Matthew, has the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross exclaim: “Surely, this man was innocent.” (Luke 23:47) In Luke’s narration, Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate become unlikely friends, after being in Jesus’ presence (Luke 23:12). And finally, only in Luke’s Gospel does Jesus pray for forgiveness for his crucifiers (Luke 23:34).
RELIGIOUS HYPOCRISY: Some observers accuse Luke of antisemitism, because he regularly shows Jesus criticizing Hebrew religious leaders (Pharisees, scribes, and Levites). I think these critics miss the point. Jesus was strongly critical of the arrogant religious hypocrisy of some of the religiously elite in his day. When invited to dine in the home of a Pharisee, for example, the religious leader accused Jesus of not washing ahead of time. Jesus replied: “Now then, you clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people!… give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you…you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God…Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:37-44)
Luke speaks strongly to our own contemporary society, in which the religiously elite and “Christian” political activists praise God yet ignore the poor, the oppressed, the diseased, and the marginalized.
Unfortunately today the word “pharisee” has taken on a pejorative meaning. In fact the Pharisees were a Hebrew movement concerned with establishing a clear and consistent Hebrew identity in everyday life. Interestingly, it was the Pharisees who believed in an afterlife and resurrection of the dead. If one reads the New Testament closely, one sees that Jesus had sympathetic supporters and followers from the ranks of the Pharisees. Nicodemus, for example, who visited Jesus at night to ask him questions, and then provided money and spices to give Jesus’ body a proper Hebrew burial after the crucifixion, was a Pharisee (see John 3). And in Luke 13:31, a Pharisee comes to warn Jesus that Herod wanted him killed.
Concluding thoughts: The Gospels are a call to follow Jesus by living as he did, open to the Spirit always and everywhere. Thinking about Luke and responding to that call, how do we deal with respecting the place and role of women today? In our contemporary church and society are we bridge builders or wall builders? And of course, how do we deal with and correct religious hypocrisy?
Next week we will begin with a look at the Gospel According to John, a gospel very different from the synoptics. And here I don’t mean the 2003 film with Christopher Plummer as the narrator.
PS A correction. At the end of last week’s post, I referred to Matthew 25:52. That should be Matthew 26:52. My mind is good but my fingers are old.
This week I begin with some general biblical observations and then turn to Matthew’s Gospel.
Each of the four gospels was carefully crafted to present the message and person of Jesus to a specific socio-religious audience. Depending upon the audience and its background and specific needs, elements mentioned or stressed in one gospel are minimized or even ignored in another.
Last week we saw that the Gospel According to Mark makes no mention of a virgin birth or of Jesus’ infancy. The gospels of Matthew and Luke do indeed mention a virgin birth. Are they reporting historic fact or their own creative suppositions? Certainly their accounts of Jesus’ infancy are creative and quite different in some details. It is very difficult to determine Jesus’ actual birthplace.The evangelists Matthew and Luke, who alone speak of it, contradict each other. Many contemporary scholars presume Jesus was actually born in Nazareth. I don’t get into this debate.
Matthew has Jesus’ family go to Egypt and then return in order to portray Jesus as the new Moses. The gospels, again, are about the meaning of the Christ-event. They are anchored in the life and meaning of the historical Jesus of Nazareth and belief in him. They do have historical elements but, strictly speaking, they are not historical accounts. Just about all scholars of antiquity agree that a human Jesus existed, but scholars differ on the historicity of specific episodes described in the biblical accounts. The gospels contain bits of history, parables, metaphor, symbol, re-interpreted passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, and imagined scenarios for key events in the life of Jesus.
Translations of the scriptures are necessary, of course, because people in different places and times speak a variety of languages. Most contemporary scripture readers are not fluent in biblical Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. Perhaps I am a bit unconventional. I can squeak by in Hebrew, but my Greek and Latin are really quite good.
Ideally, people who want a more comprehensive understanding of biblical texts should use a good biblical commentary, because all translations are filtered through the vision and vocabulary of the translator. Sometimes this creates problems in correctly understanding a passage.
In recent years, for example, scholars of the New Testament have suggested that we seriously reconsider how one translates the Greek term ioudaios, originally translated in English as “Jews.” Ioudaios is more accurately translated as “Judean,” not “Jew.” The Greek ioudaios and the Latin iudaeus come from the biblical Hebrew word Yehudi meaning “from the Tribe of Judah.”
Please note: Up until the year 1524, there was no letter “J” in the alphabet, just the letter “I”. The letter “J” was invented by Gian Giorgio Trissino, an Italian author and grammarian who lived from 1478 to 1550. By way of example, the initials INRI so often seen on crucifixes, represent the Latin words: Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum) the Latin inscription (found in John 19:19), which in English translates correctly to “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Judeans.” But not “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
There were no “Jews” in the days of Jesus. There were Hebrews, anchored in the Abrahamic religious tradition. And the word “Jew” did not appear in the first English translations of the New Testament. The best known early editions of the New Testament in English are the Douai Rheims edition and the King James Authorized Edition. The Douai Rheims translation was first printed in 1582; but the word “Jew” did not appear in it. The King James Authorized translation was first published in 1611. The word “Jew” did not appear in it either.
For the very first time the word “Jew” appeared in both of these well-known editions in their 18th century revised versions. “So, what?” a friend asked. Well, since the late 19th and early 20th centuries the word “Jew” has been used increasingly in a pejorative way and has greatly contributed to antisemitism. Expressions like “Jew someone” or “Jew lawyer” or “Jew down” have been common negative terms. Antisemitism, unfortunately, is once again showing its ugly face on both sides of the Atlantic.
Antisemitism arose because over the years, a great distortion grew up around “Jews,” linking them with the death of Jesus and with evil and avarice. One can recall Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 CE play “The Jew of Malta” and its demonic image of Jews. And in Shakespeare (1564 – 1626) we find the “Jew” moneylender Shylock and his bloodthirsty desire to claim his “pound of flesh.” Today, some people try to avoid using the word “Jew” and use “Jewish” instead. Nevertheless, in the days of Jesus there were no Jews. There were Hebrews, who belonged to the Abrahamic religious tradition. Jesus grew up in that Hebrew tradition.
Jews did not condemn Jesus. Judean religious leaders in Jerusalem condemned him. Jews did not kill Jesus. Judean religious leaders turned Jesus over to the Roman Pontius Pilate, the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea; and the Romans crucified Jesus. Pontius Pilate called Jesus “King of the Judeans” to anger the Judeans and to stress in a demeaning way that he saw Jesus as a trouble-maker, promoting rebellion against the Roman Empire.
Now to focus more directly on Matthew:
Last week I stressed that the Gospel According to Mark was designed for Gentile- Christians in Rome, and composed by an anonymous author, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Mark’s Gentile-Christians in Rome faced and feared persecution and death at the hands of Roman authorities; but they also had to live with discrimination from Hebrew-Christians living in Rome. Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, was actually written for Hebrew-Christians.
Although a second-century tradition had held that the author was Matthew, a former tax collector and one of the Twelve Apostles, contemporary scholars maintain that we have no direct evidence of that Matthew’s authorship. The Gospel According to Matthew, was most likely written by an anonymous Hebrew-Christian scribe between the years 80 and 90 CE. He was not an eye-witness to the Jesus events but collected various traditions and sayings by and about Jesus and put them in one long essay. Some scholars say the final edition could even have been written as late as 110.
The author of Matthew wrote for a community of Greek-speaking Hebrew-Christians located in Roman Syria. The largest city in Roman Syria, Antioch, is often mentioned. Its ruins today lie close to Antakya, Turkey. There were Gentile-Christian members in the community, but they were expected to obey Hebrew religious norms. Some scholars say even circumcision. Jesus in the Gospel According to Matthew came, therefore, “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17).
For Matthew, Jesus was the great embodiment of all preceding Hebrew history. Matthew’s author constructed a Jesus infancy narrative that begins with “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, Son of David, son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1-17). Matthew’s genealogy features four notable Hebrew women, a number of fulfillment passages that relate Jesus to prophetic Hebrew Scripture texts; and allusions to famous Hebrew men of the past.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus, like Moses, was rescued as an infant from a murderous king (Matthew 2:16-18). In Matthew’s narration, Jesus’ ministry begins with three temptations in the desert. They correspond to the experiences of Israel in the desert, after the Exodus. Jesus is God’s great liberator, the new Moses.
The Gospel of Matthew includes some 600 of the Gospel of Mark’s 661 verses but it adds about 220 additional verses, shared by Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark.
Matthew contains five discourses by Jesus (Matthew 5:1-7:29; 10:1-42; 13:1-52; 18:1-35; and 23:1 through 25:46) which symbolized, for the evangelist’s Hebrew-Christian audience, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
In the first of these, the Sermon on Mount, the rabbi Jesus, like a new Moses, presents his definitive teaching about what it means to be his follower. Jesus, in Matthew, is the great teacher. Notice how Jesus so often says “you have heard it said of old . . . but I say to you . (Matthew 5:21-22) Rabbi Jesus takes a teaching found in the Hebrew Scriptures and then intensifies and expands on it.
In the second, Jesus commissions the Twelve Disciples, symbolic again for the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
In the third discourse, we see opposition to Jesus coming to a head and accusations that his deeds are done through the power of Satan. Jesus in turn accuses his opponents of blaspheming the Holy Spirit and challenges his disciples to understand his teachings.
In the fourth discourse, we see that the increasing opposition to Jesus will result in his crucifixion in Jerusalem and that his disciples must therefore prepare for his absence. The instructions for the post-crucifixion community emphasized responsibility and humility. In this section we read as well that Simon, newly renamed Peter (from Petros, in Greek, meaning “rock”), calls Jesus “the Christ, the son of the living God” and Jesus states that on this “bedrock” (petra in Greek) he will build his “community.” The Greek word in the text is ekklesia which is often mistranslated as “church.”
This Matthew passage has become the text traditionally cited by Roman Catholic Church authority as the scriptural basis for its concept of the authority of the papacy. Nevertheless, the authenticity of the uniquely Matthean material (Matthew 16:16–19) has been widely discussed and has been challenged on the basis that verses 16–19 are found only in Matthew and that the inclusion of the word “church” in most translations suggests a level of organization acquired only at a later period. Nowhere in the New Testament is Peter described as being supreme over the other apostles. And as I wrote two weeks ago, we know that Peter did not establish the Christian community in Rome and Peter was never a bishop of Rome and certainly not “the first pope.” The Roman Catholic theologians Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) and John P. Meier (1942 – 2022) were quite emphatic about this in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity, (Paulist Press 1983).
In the fifth discourse, Jesus travels toward Jerusalem, and the opposition intensifies. When he arrives he is soon in conflict with the Temple’s traders and religious leaders. The disciples ask about the future, and in his final discourse Jesus speaks of the coming end. Jesus warns that there will be false messiahs, earthquakes, and persecutions. His disciples must prepare themselves for ministry to all the nations. Matthew notes that Jesus has finished all his words, and attention now turns to the crucifixion.
(Thinking about Jesus’ warning about earthquakes, the author of the Gospel of Matthew was no doubt aware of the first century earthquake history of the ancient city of Antioch, near today’s Antakya, Turkey. And we are certainly very aware of it today! On February 6, 2023, much of the cultural heritage of ancient Antioch was destroyed by an earthquake. The downtown area of today’s Antakya was devastated by the earthquake that killed at least 40,000 people across the country and in neighboring Syria.)
The central message of Jesus’ preaching in the Gospel of Matthew is the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven and the need for repentance, and a complete change of heart and conduct, on the part of those who are to receive this great gift of God (Matthew 4:17). The Kingdom of Heaven is both a present reality and a future hope. It is dawning already. The ethic that Jesus lived and taught, exemplified in the Sermon on the Mount, was essentially a “Kingdom ethic.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, Galilee is the setting for most of Jesus’ ministry. He leaves there for Judea only in Matthew 19:1. And Jesus’ ministry in the Judean city Jerusalem, the goal of his journey, is limited to just a few days (Matthew 21:1–25:46).
Matthew makes twenty-nine references to the “Kingdom of Heaven.” The gospels of Mark and Luke tend to prefer the term “Kingdom of God.” Matthew’s use of the word “Heaven” rather than “God” is often seen as a reflection of the evangelist’s sensibilities to the Hebrew background of his Hebrew-Christian audience and he therefore tried to avoid the word “God.”
The word for God used most often in the Hebrew Bible is the Tetragrammaton: in Hebrew: יהוה, and in our alphabet often written: YHWH. Hebrews traditionally did not pronounce it. This was based on their understanding of the third of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not take His name in vain.” Many contemporary Jewish people do not write “God” but “G-d” based on this old understanding.
What strikes me as I re-read the Gospel According to Matthew, is Jesus the rabbi: the great teacher. And I will conclude this week’s reflection with my own contemporary reflection based on Matthew 5:1-10, where Jesus goes up a hill with his disciples and begins to teach what we have come to know as the Sermon on the Mount. It is truly a charter for Christian life today.
The Christian Charter Based on the Sermon on the Mount:
How fortunate, happy, and blessed are those people, who are humble in spirit. The humble in spirit realize that greatness is achieved through service not domination. Power and control over people have no place in the community of faith. The humble in spirit realize they are not masters of the universe. They understand they cannot survive on their own.
How fortunate, happy, and blessed are the gentle. The gentle are the meek: those people who can make room for someone else, even for the “losers.” They are neither so arrogant nor so self-centered that they see only what they want to see. Arrogant and crude belittling of other people has no place in the words and behavior of those who claim to be followers of Christ.
How fortunate, happy, and blessed are those who have compassion. They can feel the pain of another. They put an arm around the fearful and the oppressed. They do not simply send their “thoughts and prayers,” and then disappear. They lift oppressive burdens from the shoulders of the old, the infirmed, and the impoverished. They stay with them.
How fortunate, happy, and blessed are those who show mercy to others. Merciful love is assistance without conditions. Genuine Christians are not fear mongers who scapegoat Hispanics, feminists, blacks, gays, trans, or immigrants.
How fortunate, happy, and blessed are the pure of heart. The pure of heart are honest-hearted. They are not two-faced, with hidden agendas or secret desires to advance themselves by using and abusing other people. They do not joke, make fun of, or demean other people. The pure of heart honor and search for truth. They do not fabricate “facts.”
How fortunate, happy, and blessed are those who work for peace. Those who work for peace do not erect walls. They do not launch oppressive trade wars. They are bridge builders. They cooperate rather than compete. They struggle to resolve political, social, and religious polarization through tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect. To paraphrase Matthew 25:52, in contemporary language. “put your guns away, for all who draw their guns will perish by guns.”
The Christian Charter is our examination of conscience this Lent.
Most contemporary biblical scholars suggest that what we call Mark’s Gospel was composed around 70 CE but probably after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70. The biblical scholar Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) saw an unambiguous reference to the destruction of the temple in Mark 13:2, when Jesus says “You see these great buildings ? Not a single stone will be left on another. Everything will be destroyed.”
Mark was written for Gentile-Christians in Rome, suffering Roman persecution as well as discrimination from Hebrew-Christians, who felt superior to Gentile converts. Up until the nineteenth century, and in some circles even later, the general understanding was that the author of Mark’s Gospel was “John Mark” mentioned in Acts of Apostles (Acts 12:12). Contemporary scholars, however, reject that thesis and generally agree that the final author of Mark remains anonymous.
Although it is the oldest of the four, Mark’s Gospel is also much shorter than the other gospels, with just 16 chapters compared to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24, and John’s 21. It is interesting to note that of the Synoptic Gospels, only Mark’s starts with the Greek word for “good news” euaggelion from which we get the Latin word evangelium and the English word evangelical. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Our English word gospel comes from an earlier English word gōdspel (gōd “good” + spel “news”).
As part of the vocabulary of early Christians, the “good news” did not refer to a specific type of literature nor to a book. The term had a more dynamic meaning. It was a proclamation of an event of major importance. For first century Christians, the Good News (Gospel) designated God’s saving actions in and through the person of Jesus.
Mark’s Gospel narration begins with John the Baptizer. John was an itinerant preacher, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” (Mark 1:3) preparing the way for the Messiah. Baptism had a long tradition among Hebrew religious people. Being baptized by John demonstrated a desire for spiritual cleansing and a commitment to follow God’s law in anticipation of the Messiah’s arrival. Some scholars suggest that John belonged to the Essenes, a semi-ascetic Hebrew group who practiced ritual baptism.
John the Baptizer had many followers and it appears, from Mark’s Gospel, that Jesus from Nazareth was one of them. We know as well from New Testament accounts that some of Jesus’ early followers had also been followers of John. See for example John 1:36–40. But John the Baptizer says that Jesus is far greater than he: “I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals.” (Mark 1:8) When John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan, a voice from the heavens speaks to Jesus: “You are my son, the Beloved. My favor rests on you.” (Mark 1:11) Note, the Spirit is speaking directly to Jesus. It is his call to public ministry moving far beyond that of John the Baptizer.
Throughout his life, Jesus comes to a gradual realization of who he is: the Human One (“Son of Man”) and Son of God. His disciples come as well to a gradual realization of who he is. Just like people today, who are called to grow in faith, wisdom, and understanding. We grow in our understanding and appreciation. Human life is a big discovery journey.
Mark’s Gospel has no account of either Jesus’ virgin birth or his infancy. The focus is on the adult Jesus as Messiah. The gospel does mention that Jesus had brothers and sisters in Mark 6:3.
In the fourth century human sexuality became problematic for many Christians, thanks especially to Augustine the North African bishop of Hippo (354 – 430). There is much wisdom in Augustine’s vast array of writings, but his later neoplatonic negativity about human sexuality became very problematic, reflecting images of moral disorder and sinful corruption. Thanks to Augustine, virginity became a higher calling and a Christian life ideal. And so in the fourth century Christian bishops established the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, that she was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. The biblical text in Mark 6:3 about Jesus’ brothers and sisters therefore became problematic. Virginity-oriented church authorities began to explain Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” as either children of Joseph from a previous marriage or actually “cousins” of Jesus.
In Mark 8, the author stresses that the person who wants to be Jesus’ disciple must pick up his or her cross and follow Jesus. People living in Nero’s Rome and post-Nero Rome had a very good understanding of the way of the cross. The first persecution of Christians, organized by the Roman government within the city of Rome, began in 64 CE under Emperor Nero (37 – 68 CE) after the Great Fire of Rome which burned and destroyed two thirds of Rome. Nero laid blame for the fire on the Christian community in Rome. He had Christians arrested, covered with the hides of wild beasts and torn apart by dogs, or them nailed to crosses, or set them on fire. Today historians really suspect that Nero himself had ordered the fire to remake Rome the way he wanted it and to clear space for his new palace, the Domus Aurea, his “Golden House.”
Mark is clearly a gospel of the suffering Messiah and of suffering and fearful discipleship.
In the eighth chapter of Mark, following Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus changes his speaking style. He speaks with a new urgency. He starts to talk about his upcoming death. Peter tries to rebuke him, but Jesus says: “away from me Satan” (Mark 8:33). Mark 8:31–33 is the tipping point of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus now sees his own painful death on the horizon and fears having to experience it. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. A sudden fear comes over him and he is in great distress. Like a loving but fearful child he speaks to his father: “Abba everything is possible for you. Take this cup away from me….” (Mark 14:35-36). Abba is Aramaic for father.
Jesus’ own disciple, Judas, betrayed him. The other disciples abandoned him. People spit on Jesus. He is blindfolded and beaten. Even Peter rejects him three times. (Mark 14:53-65).
Mark’s Gospel also has a rather abrupt ending. Like the other three gospels, Mark does report the visit of Mary the Magdalene and her companions to the tomb of Jesus early Sunday morning. When they arrive at the tomb, however, they find the entrance stone removed and a young man (not an angel) tells them: “’Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:6-8). And there Mark’s Gospel simply ends!
Many scholars today really believe that the Gospel of Mark originally ended with Mark 16:8. Yet some scholars contend there was in fact a lost ending. Already in antiquity editors and copyists, uncomfortable with such an abrupt ending, provided three different endings for the Gospel of Mark to correct the abruptness of 16:8. The most favored of these added endings is Mark 16:9-19, called the Markan Appendix, or the Longer Ending. It records three appearances of Jesus raised from the dead: to Mary the Magdalene, to two disciples, and to the eleven. It mentions Jesus’ ascension into heaven and his sitting at God’s right hand.
Not everything about Mark’s Gospel can be summarized in this week’s reflection. Rereading Mark’s Gospel this past week, however, two thoughts struck me: (1) Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is a rejected and suffering Son of God. (2) Following Jesus is a discipleship of the cross.
Life is not always easy. Many people still live, as did Mark’s congregation, in fearful and threatening times. Ukraine today and the earthquakes in Turkey are just two current examples in news headlines. Thousands of other sufferers never make the headlines.
Mark’s Gospel is a narrative that was crafted and constructed to engage and encourage people to have faith and hope. Fear and uncertainty, if one allows them to take control, can disable, blind, and paralyze people. But Christianity is not a religion of fear.
We are challenged to be alert and faithful to the Good News. In Mark 8:18-21 Jesus reprimands his disciples: “Do you not yet understand? Have you no perception? Are your minds closed? Have you eyes that do not see, and ears that do not hear?”
Well our contemporary challenge from the Gospel of Mark is twofold: To keep our minds, eyes, and ears open to the call of the Sacred today. But then to also be a source of faith and hope for the people who are weighed down under fear, uncertainty, and absolute misery.
Most contemporary scholars agree that Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) began his public ministry when he was about thirty years old; and they place the date of his death at Passover time around the year 30 CE. What did Jesus do before his public ministry? We don’t know. We can can only speculate. We know Jesus lived in Nazareth and had brothers and sisters. His mother’s name was Miriam (Mary) and traditionally his father’s name was Joseph. But Joseph, the husband of Mary, is never mentioned by Paul or by Mark the earliest gospel. He is never quoted. He is only mentioned by name in the Nativity of Jesus narratives in Matthew and Luke, and only mentioned in passing in John 1:45 and 6:42 where Jesus is called the “ son of Joseph.”
Some scholars believe that Jesus, like his father, was a first century craftsman. The Greek word so often translated as “carpenter” is tekton, and is more accurately rendered as a craftsman or handyman working with wood and stone. Other scholars theorize that Jesus was a monk and spent years in study and prayer, before entering his public ministerial life. Frankly, I have no pet theory. I am more interested in what Jesus said and did, as reflected in New Testament literature.
If we turn our attention to the New Testament books, the earliest “scriptures” we have are the letters written by Paul the Apostle (c. 5 – c. 64/65 CE) composed in the decade of the 50s CE. Paul’s Hebrew name was “Saul” perhaps after the biblical King Saul, the first king of Israel and like Paul a member of the Tribe of Benjamin. The Latin name Paulus “Paul,” meaning small, was not a result of his Christian conversion, as it is commonly believed, but was a second name for use in communicating with a Greco-Roman audience.
Today we know as well that not all letters attributed to Paul were authored by him. There is general scholarly agreement that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon are genuinely Pauline. Other letters bearing Paul’s name are disputed among scholars, namely Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. Most contemporary biblical scholars agree that Hebrews was certainly not written by Paul. In fact, the emphasis on Melchizedek and priesthood in Hebrews seems out of sync with Pauline theology. (Pope John Paul II, by the way, was very fond of Hebrews.)
And Peter? When we look at the history and biblical testimony about the apostolic community of Christians in Jerusalem, clearly the leader was James, the “brother of the Lord.” Peter played a role at the Council of Jerusalem (c.50 CE). But James was in charge and James issued the definitive judgment that converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcised. Then, according to the Epistle to the Galatians, Peter went to Antioch. There he tangled with Paul, who rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Hebraic Christians.
There is a later tradition that Peter and Paul went to Rome and were put to death at the hands of Nero probably between 64 and 68 CE. According to an old legend, Peter was crucified upside down. Other folklore fills out the details of Peter’s life and death in Rome: his struggles with the magician Simon Magus, his miracles, his attempted escape from persecution in Rome, and a flight from which he was turned back by a vision of Christ, the “Quo Vadis” legend. Well, history is based on actual events. Legends may or may not be.
By the second and third centuries, however, we see stories about Peter springing from historical suppositions, legends, and much creative imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 CE) the influential early bishop in the south of France.
Contrary to what some think, neither Peter nor Paul brought Christianity to Rome. Before Peter and Paul would have arrived, there were already Christian elders and house churches in Rome. But there was no central administrator. No bishop. At some point Peter may have been one of these elders. We really do not know for certain.
Most contemporary Catholic and Protestant historians, however, would stress that Peter was NEVER a bishop of Rome. The Roman Catholic theologian priests Raymond Brown and John P. Meier were quite emphatic about this in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity, (Paulist Press 1983): “There is no serious proof that he (Peter) was the bishop, or local ecclesiastical officer, of the Roman church: a claim not made till the third century. Most likely he did not spend any major time at Rome before 58 CE when Paul wrote to the Romans; and so it may have been only in the 60s and relatively shortly before his martyrdom that Peter came to the capital.”
But then what about Peter as “the first pope”? Thanks to Constantine (272 – 337 CE) and the influence of his relics-collecting mother Helena (246/248 – c. 330 CE). In her final years, Helena made a religious tour of the Palestine region and Jerusalem, during which she discovered what her tour guide said was “the True Cross.” Thanks to her as well, legends about Peter were held in high regard in third and fourth century Rome.
The first great acclamation of “Peter as a pope,” however, came from Pope Leo I, also known as Saint Leo the Great. Leo was pope from 440 CE until his death in 461 CE. Leo greatly contributed to the development of the doctrine of a papal Petrine succession, based on his personal religious imagination and pious devotion to St. Peter. Interestingly, Pope Benedict XVI said that Leo’s papacy “was undoubtedly one of the most important in the Church’s history.” Like minds?
Today, perhaps, one can understand the popes as successors of Peter in faith, witness, and ministry. It is only with a bit of creative historical imagination, however, that one can really call Peter “the first pope.” Sometimes we need to adjust old understandings based on updated historical research and information.
Four Gospels: After the deaths of James, Peter, and Paul, as well as others who had known Jesus face-to-face, it became essential for the survival of the way of Jesus that his words and deeds be recollected and written down. This led to the birth of the Four Gospels.
The clear majority of contemporary biblical scholars believe that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, sometime around the year 70 CE. This scholarly consensus holds that the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke were composed, independently of one another, sometime in the 80s or 90s. Both used a written form of the Gospel of Mark as source material for their own narratives. In addition, because both Matthew and Luke contain a large amount of material in common that is not found in Mark, most scholars hold that the authors of Matthew and Luke also drew from a collection of Jesus’ sayings that they incorporated into their works. These sayings of Jesus, known as “Q” were most likely assembled in the 40s or 50s. (The “Q” comes from the first letter of “Quelle” the German word for “source”.) This understanding of the origins of the “synoptic” Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke explains why they are similar yet different in details, descriptions, and focus.
The Gospel of John emerges from an independent literary tradition that is not directly connected to the Synoptic tradition. This accounts for the major differences between John and the Synoptics. The Gospel of John reached its final form around 90 –110 CE.
All four Gospels evolved from oral traditions, passed on from person to person, and from place to place. More than one single person (i.e. Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) composed the final versions of the four Gospels as we have them today. Each time the narrators adapted their accounts to the needs, understanding, and cultural and religious backgrounds of their listeners. The Gospels were not written therefore to give us strict “history.” They are about faith and living in the Spirit of Christ.
The Gospels contain bits of history, parables, metaphor, symbol, re-interpreted passages from the Greek (Septuagint) Hebrew Scriptures, and imagined scenarios for key events in the life of Jesus. We see for instance, in Matthew and Luke, two quite different accounts about Jesus’ infancy. Their focus was not primarily to present an historical narrative, but to affirm and proclaim their theological belief about Jesus the Christ.
Anchored in Christian faith, the authors of the Gospels – using a variety of literary forms — wanted to pass on to future generations their understanding and belief in and about Jesus Christ. Their words inform, stimulate, and encourage us to grow in our own Christian faith.
During Lent 2023, I would like to share my own reflections on the Gospels, based on my lived experience, ongoing study, and Gospel-reading. I welcome your own reactions and reflections. I subscribe to an historical/critical understanding of Sacred Scripture, because I find it not only helpful but biblically correct and responsible. I am not a literal-interpretation fundamentalist. I am also keenly aware that correct translations of biblical texts are essential for a correct understanding of what the biblical authors were saying. One small example: the Latin word ecclesia or ekklesia in Greek is often translated as “church.” The original biblical meaning of the word however is an “assembly” or a “gathering of people.”
Between now and Easter I would like to revisit the four Gospels and invite you to travel with me – with your New Testament in hand. Yes I realize that I did this about three years ago but many readers, and many new readers, have asked me to do it again. And of course each visit brings new perspectives. We live. We study. We grow in our understandings. (Or we should.)
A young university student asked for a clarification about the New Testament and the “Apocrypha.” A classmate had told him that there were many other early Christian documents, called “Apocrypha,” that should have been included in the New Testament. “So” the student asked me “is this more fake news or is the church hiding something just like they have hidden clerical sexual abuse?” My first reaction was: what a sad commentary on our times. But then I thought it was better to offer a clear explanation – and then in a future discussion to move on to other issues.
The New Testament consists of 27 books, which are a selection out of many 1st and 2nd century CE writings that Christian groups considered sacred. They are called the “New Testament Canon” based on the Greek word kanōn, which literally meant a reed used as a measuring rod and the word therefore came to mean “a standard.”
The process of making the official standard list of New Testament books stretched over a long period. The list of what books should be included differed among the hundreds of Christian communities in antiquity. The criteria for acceptance into the “canon” were: true doctrine, broad acceptance and usage, and apostolicity.
A number of early texts were not considered canonical because they were not connected to the apostolic age or they were local writings without support in many areas. These texts outside the accepted canon of the New Testament make up what we call “apocrypha,” from the Greek word apokryptein meaning “to hide away.” It referred first of all to writings which were to be read privately rather than in the public context of Christian services.
During the time of the definitive formation of the canon in the 2nd century, apparent differences existed in the Western churches, in close contact with Rome, and those of the East, as in Alexandria and Asia Minor. Athanasius of Alexandria (293 – 373) the Bishop of Alexandria and a powerful and influential theologian definitively listed the New Testament books in the canon in 367 CE and settled the strife between East and West. The 27 books of today’s the New Testament — and they only — were declared canonical. Later councils affirmed this. The Council of Trent of 1545, the embodiment of the Counter-Reformation, reaffirmed the earlier affirmations of the Council of Florence of 1442 and the North African Councils of Hippo and Carthage from 393–419.
So which books did not make the canon? Here are what I suggest are the most interesting books that did not become part of the New Testament.
The Apocalypse of Peter
This 2nd century book was written as a conversation between Jesus and his followers. It basically describes all the horrible things that happen in hell and all the awesome things that happen in heaven. It is very detailed about what punishment fits which crime for those in hell. Those who are blasphemous to God, for example, are hung by their tongue. But those who go to heaven sing beautiful music, have beautiful bodies with great skin, wear shiny clothes, and smell nice.
The Epistle of Barnabas
The Epistle of Barnabas is a book written between 70 and 130 CE. The main message of the Epistle of Barnabas is that the Hebrew scriptures — what would become the “Old Testament” in Christianity — were actually Christian documents from the very beginning. It offers a completely different interpretation of the Torah that it claims points to the validity of Christianity.
The Infancy Gospel of James
The book, written in 145 CE stresses the importance of Mary, the mother of Jesus, to early Christians. It describes her unique birth, her adolescence, and the early years of Jesus life. It stresses Mary’s perpetual virginity and God’s involvement in choosing her husband Joseph. The book describes in detail Herod’s killing of children in Bethlehem, and presents Jesus’ birth, taking place in a cave.
The Shepherd of Hermas
It would have been a very well-known book to the early Christians. It appears to have been very popular in the 2nd and 3rd centuries but its popularity had almost entirely died out by the 4th century.
The Shepard of Hermas was also very controversial at the time. It was used as scripture by some early churches and despised by others. The early Christian scholar Origen (c. 185 – c. 253 CE) quotes it as scripture. But the “founder of Western theology” Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 CE) as well as theologian and philosopher Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 CE) regarded it as heretical. The Shepard of Hermas is an allegorical book written mostly in the first person describing thevisions of Hermas, a former slave.
Clement is one of two letters sent to the church in Corinth and attributed to Pope Clement of Rome (c. 35 – 99 CE). It is one of the earliest written books that eventually failed to make it into the New Testament, being dated to around 95 CE. The book itself is mostly focused on a dispute in the Christian community at Corinth about the removal of several leaders, which Clement strongly objected to.
The Gospel of Thomas
One of the most famous books not included in the New Testament is the so called Gospel of Thomas. It is not a book that was passed down through the ages but was rediscovered as part of the Nag Hammadi Library in upper Egypt in 1945. There is no evidence it was widely read by the early Christians and the few existing references refer to it as heretical. The book does not mention the death and resurrection of Jesus but focuses on his teachings and how they lead to eternal life. Scholars have proposed dates of composition as early as 60 CE and as late as 250 CE.
The Jesus Seminar (a group of scholars, active from 1985 to 2006, to decide their collective view of the historicity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth) asserted that the Gospel of Thomas may have more authentic material than the Gospel of John. They published a book in 1996 titled The Five Gospels, which includes the canonical four plus Thomas. But John Paul Meier (1942 – 2022) the U.S. American biblical scholar and Roman Catholic priest repeatedly argued against the historicity of the Gospel of Thomas, stating that it cannot be a reliable source for the quest of the historical Jesus.
The U.S. American historian of religion, Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, argues in her book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003), that the Gospel of John was written as a rebuttal to the viewpoints put forth in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. But she insists that the Christian Church would look very different if it had incorporated both texts. Pagels’ best-selling book The Gnostic Gospels (1979) examines the divisions in early Christian communities. It is a provocative and a very worthwhile read.
The Didache or “The Lord’s teaching of the twelve apostles” is basically a set of step-by-step instructions for a Christian life. It is dated by modern scholars to the first or (less commonly) second century CE. The first section is on how Christians should apply the commandments of God. The second section deals with the sacraments of Baptism, the Eucharist and with fasting.The third section is about ecclesial structure. The Didache was considered for inclusion in the New Testament by some in the early days of the Christianity.
Third Epistle to the Corinthians
The Third Epistle to the Corinthians is an early Christian text written by an unknown author claiming to be Paul the Apostle, known originally as Saul of Tarsus (c. 5 – c. 64/65 CE). This letter has survived and was included in some early lists of sacred documents, but by the 4th century it was not considered valid. It is considered by most scholars to have been written by someone other than Paul the Apostle.
In conclusion, I suggest the most important part of this reflection is not just the historical information about early Christian texts but the call of the Gospels to be and to live in the Spirit of the Christ.
I would, therefore, like to conclude this week’s reflection with two texts from the Fourth Gospel: John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it in all its fullness,” and John 14:19-20: “In a little while the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
In the Christmas holidays, a somewhat critical reader sent me an email that he was now convinced that I am not really a Christian but just “an old humanist.”
Without getting into a long email discussion, I wrote very simply that I try to live following the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth: “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). I stressed that humanist principles like universal human dignity and individual freedom are essential components of the life and teachings of Jesus. I stressed, therefore, that I am not just “an old humanist” but a Christian humanist. I stressed as well that all genuine believers must be Christian humanists. But I added in a PS that some of today’s most inhumane actors on the human stage, especially political actors, prance around proclaiming Christ as their savior.
These much in the news actors are good talkers but it stops there. They just talk. They use Jesus’ name in vain. Others claim to be Christian yet prefer to worship him but not to live as he did.
What is missing in so much of today’s religious and political rhetoric is a focus on living basic moral values: Treating each other with civility and respect. Listening to the other side. Telling the truth. Being honest. Loving neighbors as ourselves. Welcoming the worn out, the lonely, and the downtrodden. And recognizing that all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, have innate dignity and deserve to be treated with kindness, affirmation, and respect.
Christian humanism stresses that in spite of sorrow, pain, and agony, human life is nevertheless saturated with worth and that truly responsible human action draws together that goodness into a complete vision of life with others and for oneself.
While I would emphasize that the early post-Resurrection followers of Jesus were Christian humanists, the term did not come into widespread use until the fifteenth and sixteenth century Renaissance. The Renaissance Christian humanists who come to mind immediately, for me, are Pico della Mirandola (1463 – 1494), Thomas More (1478 – 1535), and Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536). There were of course many others.
In 1486 Pico della Mirandola wrote the Oration on the Dignity of Man, which has been called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance.” Unfortunately he was condemned as a heretic by Pope Innocent VIII (1432 – 1492) in 1487. His book was banned by the Church, and nearly all copies were burned. At the age of 31, he died of arsenic poisoning most likely because of his friendship with the Dominican friar and Renaissance activist, Girolamo Savonarola (1452 – 1498), so well known for for his clashes with tyrannical rulers and corrupt clergy. By the way, Savonarola preached at Pico’s funeral.
Thomas More’s most famous book was Utopia, published in 1516 in a print shop very close to the city center of Leuven, Belgium, adjacent to University Hall, which has been the main administrative building for the University of Leuven since 1431. Utopia presents an imaginative Christian humanist island where there were free hospitals, priests were allowed to marry, women were allowed to become priests, and divorce was permitted. But slavery and war were also condoned and supported.
When it came to the Protestant Reformation, however, Thomas More directed strong opposition to the theology of Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), Huldrych Zwingli (1484 – 1531), John Calvin (1509 – 1564) , and William Tyndale (1494 – 1536).
Thomas More opposed, as well, King Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic Church and refused to acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the Church of England. When More refused to take his former friend King Henry’s 1534 Oath of Supremacy, Henry had him beheaded on 6 July 1535. Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) is perhaps the most well known of all England’s monarchs, notably for the fact that he had six wives and beheaded two of them. Henry was also subject to raging mood swings and paranoia. It is estimated that during his 36 years of rule over England Henry had ordered the execution of about 57,000 people, many of whom were either members of the clergy or ordinary citizens and nobles who had taken part in uprisings and protests up and down the country.
Of all the Renaissance humanists, Erasmus is my favorite. Few people these days realize that he was a priest and that his father was a priest. Although his parents were not legally married, his father, Gerard, was a Catholic priest and curate in the Dutch city of Gouda. In1517, Erasmus supported the foundation in Leuven of the Collegium Trilingue (College of Three Languages) for the study of Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Erasmus did not stay in Leuven very long because the local academics and clergy, at that time, opposed his principles of literary interpretation and religious reform.
I have always been delighted to know that Erasmus lived and worked for a few years at the Norbertine “Park Abbey,” founded in 1129 and not far from my back yard. Sometimes, in my historical daydreams, I picture him walking down the nearby street, on his way to town.
Most importantly, Erasmus embraced the humanistic belief in an individual’s capacity for self-improvement and the fundamental role of education in raising human beings above the level of brute animals. The thrust of Erasmus’ educational focus was the promotion of what he termed the “philosophy of Christ.” As a biblical scholar he supported the call to return to Ad fontes: getting back to primary sources by examining the texts in their original languages. His pioneering edition of the Greek New Testament shows that he had an understanding of the process of textual transmission and had developed text-critical principles. He was developing what today we call “historical criticism.”
In general Erasmus stressed consensus, compromise, and peaceful cooperation. These he recommended to the participants in the Reformation debate, but with little success. In fact Erasmus later broke with Martin Luther. The two men disagreed over an analytical questioning of Scripture and the question of free will, which Erasmus supported.
The circulation of Erasmus’ works was temporarily curtailed when the Catholic Church put them on the Index of Forbidden Books, but his ideas saw a revival during the Enlightenment when he was regarded as a forerunner of rationalism. His most famous work, In Praise of Folly, has remained in print up to the present day. The book, printed in 1511, presents a satirical examination of superstitious and corrupt practices in the Roman Catholic Church. It ends with a straightforward statement about Christian humanist realism: “No man is wise at all times, or is without his blind side.”
Thinking about Christian humanism today, the challenges for us are moving beyond distorted vision – beyond our “blind sides.” The historical Jesus says in John 10:10 “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Genuine Christian humanists must realize that for Jesus and for us “they” means humanity in all variations: all religions, all genders, all races and nationalities.
Jesus stressed this point in his parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 10:25 – 37). A traveler is stripped of clothing, beaten, and left half dead alongside the road. First, a Hebrew priest and then a Levite come by. Both avoid the man. Finally, a Samaritan happens upon the traveler. We should remember that in Jesus’ days most Hebrews looked upon the Samaritans with contempt. They were not simply outcasts. They were considered the despised enemies of the Hebrews. But in Jesus’ parable it is the Samaritan who stops and cares for the injured man, taking him to an inn, where the Samaritan pays for his care.
Thinking as well about “they,” I would stress that genuine Christian humanism must also critique and promote healthy religion regardless whether it is Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other religion, or philosophy acting like a religion. I have four points for reflection:
Healthy religion encourages all people to deal kindly with others, to overcome personal selfishness, and to create just and caring communities. Perverted religion categorizes certain people as evil and unworthy of life.
Healthy religion sees religion as a way to support and liberate people. Perverted religion sees religion as a way to use and control and abuse people.
Healthy religion encourages intellectual honesty, questioning, and doubts. Perverted religion condemns the questioner and demands unquestioned loyalty.
And, of course, healthy religion emphasizes love and growth.
(Certainly one of the most hopeful developments in the Roman Catholic Church has been the ordination of women as priests and bishops. This week I am pleased to post this letter, sent to me by my friend Bishop Nancy Louise Meyer. It is dated January 6, 2023. – Jack)
An Open Letter to: the People of God, Pope Francis, Curia Officials, Conferences of Bishops in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia and Oceania
Hope arrived for women in the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Pope John XXIII called the Church to open the doors and windows and to “read the signs of the times”. When Pope Francis recently called for a global synodal process, we, the women bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, dared again to hope that the leadership of the Church would listen and walk with all the People of God.
In a November interview published in America magazine, Pope Francis attempts to justify the exclusion of women from ordained ministry utilizing the archaic, patriarchal theology that Jesus was a man and he chose men as his apostles, therefore, priests must also be male. He appealed to the medieval spousal imagery of an active-receptive relationship, in which the Church is the bride and the priest the bridegroom. This disregards the fundamental message of the Gospel and contradicts our baptismal oneness in Christ: “. . . there is no longer male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Baptism rests on faith, not on gender, not nationality, nor any other form of discrimination.
In the interview, Francis fails to acknowledge the many times in Scripture where women are chosen by God or Jesus to minister. Mary of Magdala was proclaimed ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ and a host of other women named in Scripture went out to proclaim the Good News in the early church. The argument that maleness is necessary for ordination damages the Church and greater society. A church subjugating women with their structures supports similar subjugation in the world. In this the Roman Catholic Church violates its own words from the Second Vatican Council which states that, “Forms of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language or religion, must be curbed or eradicated as incompatible with God’s designs.”(Gaudium et Spes 29) Francis’ attempt to justify the exclusion of women from ordination is a failure to “read the signs of the times” and to understand the basic human rights of all members of the Church.
Roman Catholic Women deacons, priests and bishops have answered the call of God and their communities through valid ordination in apostolic succession. We are providing a vibrant experience of community and sacraments where we live. We are not responsible for people leaving the Church, we are bringing people back to the faith. We heal those grievously wounded by physical, emotional and spiritual abuse and exclusion. We offer a model of church easily recognizable as Roman Catholic, but offering transparency of governance, the inclusion of those marginalized, and recognition of gender equality.
We call on Pope Francis and the Conferences of Bishops in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia and Oceania to meet with us, the Roman Catholic Women Bishops serving across the world. Despite his call for dialogue, Pope Francis refuses to engage in authentic conversation with us. Francis can use his Petrine key to unlock that door.
On behalf of Roman Catholic Women deacons, priests and bishops around the world:
Last week’s reflection about Joseph Ratzinger, who passed from this life on December 31, 2022, generated a lot of reaction and questions. One issue that many people commented about was his strong affirmation of Catholic teaching about gender, human sexuality, and specifically the same-sex orientation, traditionally called “homosexuality.”
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “homosexual acts” are “acts of grave depravity” that are “intrinsically disordered….Under no circumstances can they be approved.” Regarding homosexuality as an orientation, the Catechism describes it as “objectively disordered.” The Catechism, as I mentioned last week was drafted by a commission chaired by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992.
Certainly today the scientific and experiential insights available to us clearly indicate that the RCC’s theological tradition can be and must be approached critically, to clarify its foundation, rationale, and continued meaningfulness in the changed socio-historical circumstances of the contemporary world.
The Bible and Homosexuality
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) turns to the Bible in its discussion of the “problem of homosexuality” and asserts that “there is … a clear consistency within the sacred scriptures for judging the immorality of homosexual behavior.” The texts on which this “clear consistency” is built are: Genesis 19:1-11; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:26-7; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10.
Nevertheless, in the light of contemporary biblical scholarship, it is impossible to agree that the texts on which this Catholic tradition about the immorality of homosexual acts is based are “unambiguous” and provide “solid foundation.” Contemporary theologians would stress that the biblical accounts are complex and socio-historically conditioned literary forms that demand careful historical-critical analysis.
First of all, neither the Bible nor the Christian tradition rooted in it prior to the twentieth century ever really considered the homosexual condition as a specific sexual orientation. They took for granted that everyone was heterosexual. To look for any mention in the biblical texts of what today is called “homosexual orientation” is simply unfounded. One might just as well search the Bible for advice about buying a cellphone or a laptop computer
The context in which both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New testament condemn homosexual acts is shaped by the socio-historical conditions of the times in which they were written, namely that all human beings naturally share the heterosexual condition and that, therefore, any homosexual behavior is a perversion of “nature” and immoral. Because that biblical assumption is now scientifically shown to be incorrect, the Bible has little to contribute to the discussion of genuine homosexuality and homosexuals as we understand them today. In fact, the Bible also contains many questionable moral teachings about sex: the evil of sexual relations during menstruation for example, or about the stoning of adulterers, about women’s role, about slavery, and a host of other issues. All of these issues have been rejected by modern Catholic moral theology as archaic misunderstandings. But homosexuality?
In this reflection, I cannot go into a detailed analysis of all biblical texts touching on homosexuality. For a detailed analysis of the biblical texts I suggest the book: The Sexual Person, Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, by Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler (Georgetown University Press / Washington, D.C., 2008). It is still an excellent book. I have known and respected Todd for many years, from the time he was a theology student at the Catholic University of Leuven and then completed his doctorate in 1994.
The Catholic tradition also teaches that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered because they are “contrary to the natural law.”
The Natural Law Argument
In determining contemporary moral values and behavior, a realistic understanding of human life requires an historically conscious worldview, because human reality is dynamic, evolving, and changing. We certainly see this when it comes to medical science. During the 19th century, for example, bloodletting was a very common treatment for basically any ailment you might be suffering from. At the time, doctors believed that too much blood would throw off the balance in your body.
People today laugh at such ignorant foolishness. People, however, do not always apply new human insights to moral moral values. As our human understanding develops and changes, so too do our human concepts, theories, and courses of action. This is not a matter of relativism but of changing human perspectives. There is indeed a human thread from generation to generation that links faith and moral values. People in every age reflect, evaluate, and interpret that faith and moral values tradition in terms of their contemporary culture and understanding.
When people determine moral obligations from “nature,” they are really deriving them from their own human interpretation of “nature.” The challenge with “natural law”and “human nature” is that our understanding of human sexuality – with its biological, emotional, psychological, relational, and spiritual dimensions — has developed historically and it continues to develop. I learned this years ago from my Louvain (Leuven) professor, Louis Janssens (1908 – 2001), founder of the Louvain tradition of personalism. Janssens made an original contribution to the study of the human person through the approach which he coined as “the human person adequately considered.”
Personalist moral philosophers and theologians stress that the old “traditional” biological and strictly physicalist understanding of traditional natural law and human “nature” must be transformed into a contemporary personalist, relational understanding. The former defines the morality of acts based only on the physical, biological structure of those acts. The latter defines the morality of acts based on the meaning of those acts for persons and relationships. Marital sexuality in a personalist relational understanding, for example, is about much more than simply linking genitalia to produce progeny.
The ethical criterion for human choices and actions therefore is the extent to which these choices and actions respect and enhance a person’s living together in time and space, in all the many different dimensions of a person’s life world and life history: familial, social, material, environmental, spiritual, physical, and psychological. This is “the human person adequately considered.”
“Nature” and natural law have always had a prominent place in Catholic moral theology and, in official Church teaching, not only homosexuality but also masturbation, premarital, extramarital, contraceptive, and non-reproductive types of marital sexual activity have been condemned as “contrary to the natural law.”
I would emphasize, however, that every interpretation of “nature” is a socially constructed reality dependent on human perspective and interpretations. The reality of “nature” must always be subjected to scrutiny, even if the interpretation be advanced by the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Homosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a homosexual orientation, just as heterosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a heterosexual orientation. Period. Sexual acts are moral when they are natural, reasonable, and expressed in a truly human, just, and loving manner.
The historical Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. He did say “Love your neighbor as yourself.”