February 16, 2018

First Peter, James, and Paul: Then Four Gospels

Most contemporary scholars agree that Jesus 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. Some believe he was like a first century “blue collar” worker in the construction business outside Nazareth. Others that, after his father’s death he, as first-born son, took over the carpentry business to support his mother, brothers, and sisters. Still others 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.

Earliest Christian scriptures: If we turn our attention to the New Testament books, the earliest “scriptures” we have are the letters written by Paul and composed in the decade of the 50s CE. 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 the Paul. In fact, the emphasis on Melchizedek and priesthood in Hebrews seems out of sync with Pauline theology.

Early apostolic leadership: When we look at the history and biblical testimony about the post-Resurrection apostolic community of Christians in Jerusalem, clearly the leader was James, the “brother of the Lord.” Peter played a role in the Council of Jerusalem, around 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 Judaic Christians.

There is a 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.

By the second and third centuries, we see stories about Peter springing from historical suppositions, legends, and much creative imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 CE). 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; but contemporary Catholic and Protestant historians would stress that Peter was never a bishop of Rome. Raymond Brown and John P. Meier were 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.”

Peter “the first pope”: Thanks to Constantine (272 – 337 CE) and the influence of his relics-collecting mother Helena, Peter and 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 devotion to St. Peter.

Fine. I would agree that today one can understand the popes as successors of Peter in faith, witness, ministry, and leadership. Ahem. One can also understand today’s bishops, Catholic and Protestant, as sharing in that same tradition, as successors of the apostles. It is only with a bit of creative theological imagination, however, that one can really call Peter the first pope. Sometimes we need to adjust old understandings based on better historical research.

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.

Although some researchers disagree, 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 explains the major differences between John and the Synoptics.

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 / religious backgrounds of their listeners. The Gospels were not written therefore to give us strict “history.”

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 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 2018, 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 Greek word ecclesia or ekklesia (εκκλησία) is often translated as “church.” The original biblical meaning of the word however is an “assembly” or a “gathering of people.”

Thanks to the life, message, and witness of Jesus of Nazareth crucified and raised from the dead, we have faith, hope, and confidence to move forward today. Living that faith is our contemporary Christian challenge….

Next time some reflections about the Gospel According to Mark

– Jack


6 thoughts on “First Came Peter, James, and Paul

  1. This is an excellent and fascinating essay. I look forward to more of your commentary during Lent. I recall reading some years ago a book called “God’s Secretaries”, about the King James translation of the Bible. A point of dispute arose about translation of “ecclesia.” Some wanted to make it “congregation”, others held out for “church.” The church crowd won!

  2. You and I are on the same page–or perhaps I can expand the metaphor–you are on page one, and I am on the reverse–our purposes differ, though both our faith and our resources are similar.: I will share with you some of my writings–sharred with just a few dozen people at WordPress and email.s.

    Good News for the Day, February 14, 2018
    Ash Wednesday (219)
    Jesus says to persons he has inspired (disciples): “Take care not to do your good deeds just so that other people will notice them; otherwise, you will have no just response from your heavenly Father. When you give charity, don’t “blow a trumpet before you,” as hypocrites do in houses of prayer and public media to win the praise of other people. The truth is, they have received their reward already. No, when you give charity, don’t let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that whatever good you do may remain unknown. Your Father who sees anything hidden will respond to you. “When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites, who love to stand out and pray in public places such as churches and public media so that other people see them. The truth is, they have received their reward already. No, when you pray, go to some inner room of yours, close the door, and pray to your Father in that hidden place, and your Father who sees anything secret will respond to you. “When you fast or do any such religious act, do not look so serious – like hypocrites. They refashion their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be doing some authentic religious act, such as fasting. The truth is, they have received their reward already. No, when you fast, present your self as ordinary, so that you may not appear to be doing something religious– except for your Father who remains unseen. your Father who sees anything hidden will respond to you.” (Matthew 6)

    This generation” does things to be noticed, to persuade or control other people, to win praise and be liked, and, in general, to appear better, stronger, or smarter than other people. Jesus calls these people “hypocrites,” the Greek word for an actor, someone who wears a mask, and pretends to be someone they are not.
    The call here is to avoid that attitude of hypocrisy. Jesus says not to do things so that people notice you. Give to charity and be charitable in ways that are not noticed (and then forget them). Pray more in your heart than through your lips. Do your Lenten practices in ways that people do not notice you; consider them a standard way of living, casual and not extraordinary.
    The great gift of all this secrecy is intimate communication with God, our lover. God comes to you in the quiet, away from the crowd, and the prayer life that no one sees. What develops is a kind of pillow talk in an intimate, soft way with Someone who loves you – a romance with God. (After all, this year, it is Valentine’s Day!)

    Good News for the Day, February 15, 2018
    Thursday after Ash Wednesday (220)
    To people he has inspired, Jesus says, “This Human Child has to suffer terribly and be rejected by people in power (“elders”), religious leaders and learned people, and be killed and then on the third day be raised.” To the public, then, Jesus says: “If anyone wishes to come after me—those people have to deny themselves and take up their cross every day and follow me. For everybody who want to save their lives will lose it, but whoever loses their own life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for somebody to gain the whole world but lose or forfeit himself?” (Luke 9)
    Having told us that the starting point for the follower of Jesus is authenticity, the church offers next a Gospel warning that speaks of the consequence of authenticity—rejection, pain—even death. At some point, your faith acquires a special kind of internal courage—the guts—to be Jesus in your world.
    For many reasons, some people will oppose you in this alternate way of life—your different (i.e., sacred) “life.” It may be their envy, it may be just irrational dislike, it may be a “this-generation” view hostile to persons who do not conform to the “way it has always been done.”. It may be opposition from an ideology of theirs that is set, or it may be some far-fetched rationalization arising from a mistaken principle.
    In these cases, it is your “inside” life, your inner peace, your acceptance, your calm humility and your brave caring that recognizes such opposition. You recognize that the “powers-that-be” do not like any follower of Jesus. You are no victim, not a mere passive sufferer—no, you are in fact the risen, wounded Lord whose inner life of the Spirit counts more than any wounds the world inflicts.
    Once you clarify that your character—your permanent self—is made of faith and hope in others, and manifests itself in caring love for others, you become fearless in a profound and modest way; You enjoy a Life that’s beyond living, a Permanence beyond Death, a peace that surpasses all understanding. You have a life you will never lose, even if you die. You may not “gain the world,” but you Live a rich Life.

    Good News for the Day, February 16, 2018
    Friday after Ash Wednesday (221)
    Friends and followers of John approached Jesus, asking, “Why do we and the Pharisees practice fasting so much while your friends and followers do not?” Jesus answered, “Can wedding guests do grieving practices while newlyweds are still present? A time will come when a newlywed is taken away from them. (Matthew 9)
    This passage suggests the freedom you have, the sense that you area Child of God, and a servant of persons—not a slave of traditions, someone locked into a prison of the past, but someone who chooses to love neighbors with authentic compassion and respect, to walk humbly in acceptance of God’s will—not your own, and to act—to make choices—with sense you are aiming for what’s right, no matter how hard.
    You have a freedom—not a liberty that is reckless, inconsiderate, and selfish—where you are stepping on, or hurting, others. You have a freedom from you own past—to see past your prejudices, to change from fear into welcoming, to acknowledge faults and failures, and to find enriching goodness in persons who attack, or make you feel uncomfortable.
    It is that you are living in the spirit of Jesus, this Child of God. You are set not on benefiting yourself, but healing others. You serve and nourish the people around you, like a waiter at the table of the Lord. You are at peace when people reject you and abuse you and your good intentions.
    True fasting, Pope Francis recently suggested, is to “abstain from indifference,” to refrain from fear and caution, to visit instead of neglecting people in need, to involve yourself in the caring aspects of civil life, rather than raging or uttering futile and ultimately false, arguings. Lent can mark a retreat from what bad habits you might come to acknowledge, a sense of controlling others (or trying to), or asserting self when quiet listening and even pausing into a calm isolating—a desert, like Jesus.
    Yes, temptations and half-truths tempt, but the Good News is the commitment of faith that looks at others as much as self—trying to grow daily, like Jesus, in the joy of seeing the beauty, truth and love that surrounds you—sometimes obscurely—every moment.

  3. Thanks so very much, Jack. This is a wonderfully illuminating and concise “preface” to your Lenten reflections, greatly anticipated by all us, your students.

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