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.