The Gospel According to Mark

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.

  • Jack

Early Christians, Paul, Peter, and the Gospels

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.) 

  • Jack

Questions About the New Testament and Early Christian Literature

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 the visions of Hermas, a former slave.

1 Clement

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

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.” 

That is our hope and our challenge.


Christian Humanism

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.

 May we be healthy Christian humanists!