Good News in Luke

While Mark focused on the mostly Gentile Christian community in Rome and Matthew was more focused on the Hebrew-Christian community in Antioch, Luke stresses that Christianity is a way of life for Gentile as well as Hebrew-Christian believers.

Richard McBrien (1936 – 2015) Catholic priest and professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame wrote: “The Christian who will not live the Gospel cannot hope to understand it.” Luke teaches us how to live the Good News and understand it.

Luke is about a compassionate and loving God; and has a strong focus on healing and reconciliation: actions so greatly needed in our own contemporary society. Right now I am thinking about the Compassionate Samaritan who loved his enemy and had compassion on him.

Certainly, Luke’s stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons and the compassionate father, representing God — verses 15:1-32 – are a must read for a complete presentation of who God is. As a biblical-expert friend said recently, these verses represent “The Greatest Story Ever Told by Yeshua – who God really is.” 

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 the Acts of Apostles make up a two-volume work often called simply Luke–Acts; and they are addressed to the “most excellent” Theophilus (Friend of God). For 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. The author is not named in either volume, 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. There are significant contradictions between Acts and the authentic Pauline letters. Textual analysis suggests that Luke-Acts was written not earlier than 80–90 CE; and most likely as late as 90–110 CE, because 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 human history. His genealogy is presented at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and runs backwards fromJoseph 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. (Next week we will take a closer look at the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke.)

What strikes you, as you re-read this gospel? Three themes caught my attention: women, building bridges, and religious hypocrisy.

WOMEN: Luke offers a unique focus and portrayal of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in her commitment to the will of God. In Luke 1:46-55, Mary’s Song of Praise – called in Latin the Magnificat — inspires us all. Perhaps we really can’t appreciate the boldness of Luke in centering the nativity story on a woman, let alone telling it from her point of view. It i certainly in contrast to the usual — and the norm for that time — male dominated Matthew account. Luke pairs most male stories with a female story. He outdoes the Gospel of John in portraying God as a woman in the search for the lost coins. (Luke 15:8-10) 

In Luke we see Mary, an early disciple of Jesus. She 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 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). 

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 Roman monument inscriptions that had praised Augustus Caesar as “god” and “savior.” Luke hereby stresses that Jesus had completed more fully and uniquely the work of Augustus. 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) Building bridges. 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 hypocrisy 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 praise God and ignore the poor, the oppressed, the diseased, and the marginalized.

The Hebrew Scriptures contain countless exhortations about social justice for the poor, widows, orphans, and all the oppressed and downtrodden. Isaiah relates that God has grasped us by the hand and calls us for the victory of justice, to be light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to free the captives, and to bring those who live in darkness into the light. Luke quotes that as Jesus (Yeshua) begins his ministry and as a duty of each of us. In Luke’s beatitudes, Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor,” and not poor in spirit as in Matthew.

A closing contemporary thought: Perhaps today’s Roman Catholic Church leaders should read and reflect on Luke’s “building bridges not walls.” The Roman Catholic Church is deeply divided right now. No doubt more so than it’s ever been in the six decades since the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). As journalist Robert Mickens observed recently, the fractures are most obvious on social media where priests, bishops and cardinals polarize and preach all along their ideological spectrum. “More importantly,” Mickens wrote on 18 November in La Croix International, “on what side ofdivide, or where along the spectrum, do the cardinals who will be casting ballots for the next pope line up?”



And today I repeat my annual request for Another Voice donations, which help me cover blog, internet, and computer costs, and supplement my retirement income. I will repeat the announcement until early December. Your consideration is greatly appreciated. There are three ways readers can contribute:

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The Good News in Matthew

Each of the four New Testament “Good News” texts was written to present the message and person of Jesus — the Messiah, the Human One and Son of God, the Christ — to a specific audience. Depending upon the “audience” and its specific needs, elements mentioned or stressed in one text are minimized or even ignored in another. Last week we saw that Mark makes no mention of a virgin birth or about Jesus’ infancy. Matthew and Luke do indeed mention a virgin birth; but their accounts of Jesus’ infancy are imaginative and quite different in some details. I would stress again that the “Gospels” are about the meaning of the Christ-event. And even though they are anchored in the historic Jesus (Yeshua) of Nazareth, they  are not strictly-speaking historical accounts.

Last week I stressed that the Good News According to Mark was designed for Gentile Christians in Rome, and composed by an anonymous author, some time 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.

The Good News According to Matthew, was edited by an anonymous Hebrew-Christian in the mid-80s CE. As I wrote in my “Distorted Understandings of God?” November 1st blog article, in the text of Matthew 22:1-14 we see a negative Matthew who displays violence, vengeance, and calls for divine retribution on enemies. But we also see a positive Matthew in 5:1-11, who displays the highest possible Christian consciousness in the Sermon on the Mount: unconditional love, compassion, forgiveness, boundless generosity, and the grace of God that we see in the total non-violence of Jesus (Yeshua) who lived his life non-violently, and died the same way, never seeking violence or retribution against his murderers.  

Unfortunately for us, the final Matthew text editor mixed up the positive and the negative. A vital key, therefore, to understanding Matthew lies in understanding the textual puzzle of the final version of Matthew: containing 54 direct citations from the Hebrew Scriptures, 262 allusions, and many verbal parallels. It also borrows and misquotes or misinterprets some Hebrew Scriptures. It even misquotes prophets, incorrectly applying prophecies to Jesus, or quoting non-existent prophets, and prophecies. The final text, for example has the family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus take a circuitous route through Egypt, to get to Nazareth (for Luke, they already lived there). Matthew 2:23 informs us: “In this way, what was said through the prophets was fulfilled. ‘He shall be called a Nazorean.’” The fact that this passage does not even exist in the Hebrew Scriptures didn’t seem to faze the Matthew scribe who wrote it.

[An aside…Reading the Scriptures a biblical commentary can be helpful. It is something a parish or local library should have in its book collection. One which I like is The Jerome Biblical Commentary for the Twenty-First Century, published on 27 January 2022 by Bloomsbury Publishing: it is edited by John J. Collins, Gina Hens-Piazza, Barbara Reid OP and Donald Senior CP.]

The most probable location for the Matthean community was Antioch, whose ruins today lie close to Antakya, Turkey. The community was strongly Hebrew-Christian. There were Gentile Christian members, but they were expected to obey Hebrew religious norms. Some scholars say even circumcision. The Matthean Jesus came, therefore, “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it” (Matthew 5:17).

As one reads the text, it is important to remember that Matthew was composed for Hebrew-Christian instructional purposes. The stress is on the “Hebrew” element. Matthew therefore has Jesus born in Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Hebrew King David, who lived c. 1000 BCE. In Luke, Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem in order to satisfy an imperial command that all individuals return to their ancestral towns so that all could be taxed. We will take a closer look at this in a

couple weeks, when we examine the Jesus Infancy Narratives.

The text of Matthew does not consider Christianity as something that involved a definite break with the Hebrew religion. Instead, it views Christianity as a continuation and fulfillment of that which had been set forth in the literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. Not for a moment does Matthew suggest that Jesus changed or set aside the requirements of the Mosaic Law.

Matthew contains five sermons of Jesus (Matthew 5:1-7:29; 10:1-42; 13:1-52; 18:1-35; and 23:1 through 25:46) which, for the evangelist’s audience symbolized the five books of the Torah. In the first of these, the “Sermon on Mount,” the rabbi Jesus, like a new Moses, presents his definitive teaching about the Torah. Notice how he 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 Torah and then intensifies and expands on it.

For Matthew Jesus is the great embodiment of all preceding Hebrew history. In Chapter 1, the text begins with “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, Son of David, son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1-17). Then Matthew’s genealogy features four notable Hebrew women, a number of  passages that relate Jesus to prophetic texts, and allusions to famous Hebrew men of the past. Note for instance that Jesus, like Moses, was rescued as an infant from a murderous king (Matthew 2:16-18). In Matthew’s creative narration, Jesus is also the New Moses and his ministry begins with three temptations in the desert. They correspond to the experiences of Israel in the desert, after the Exodus. As the New Moses, Jesus is God’s great liberator. Unlike Luke, who traces Jesus’s ancestry back to Adam, father of the human race, Matthew traces it only back to Abraham, father of the Hebrew tradition.

What strikes me, as I re-read the Good News According to Matthew, is Jesus the rabbi: the great 

teacher. And I conclude this week’s reflection with my own translation and contemporary reflection 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.” Most scholars suggest the final editor of Matthew collected a number of Jesus sayings and put them together in this “Sermon on the Mount.”

This collection of Jesus sayings is truly a charter for Christian life today. The greek word makarioi often translated as “blessed” means as well “fortunate.” I find it wonderful advice for authentic Christian living. Truly how fortunate are those who live in the Spirit of Jesus. The “Sermon on the Mount” is truly a Charter for Christian Life:

Matthew 5:3 — How fortunate 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.

Matthew 5:4 — How fortunate are those who grieve for they shall be comforted.

        Many people grieve in sorrow today: people in frightening war situations, people suffering abuse, job loss, broken relationships, cancer, infertility, or a terminal illness. Jesus assures all, even if they cannot see it at the moment, that they are not abandoned. The historical Jesus knew abandonment, suffering, and a painful death. He overcame them. He travels with all of his contemporary followers. Their life is not meaningless.

Matthew 5:5 — How fortunate 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 – even when they sit in high political office or wear colorful clerical uniforms. “You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them; and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you.” (Matthew 20:25-26)

Matthew 5:6 — How fortunate are those who want justice, mercy and truth in this world.

      We are fortunate if we have high ideals, strong values, noble goals, and the motivation to build up what is best in others and in ourselves. But the temptations are strong: to conform, to do what everyone else does, to simply read the news and then not rock the boat.

Matthew 5:7 – How fortunate 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, or immigrants.

Matthew 5:8 — How fortunate 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. The pure of heart honor and search for truth. They do not fabricate self-serving “facts.”

Matthew 5:9 — How fortunate 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, in a contemporary way, Matthew 25:52, “put your guns away, for all who draw their guns will perish by guns.”

Matthew 5:10 — How fortunate are those who suffer persecution because they truly live the Gospel.

      There are a lot of phony Christians in high places these days, who love to denigrate and oppress their critics. They profess love of Christ. In reality they love only themselves. Matthew’s Jesus is adamant about this. He spoke of religious leaders who wore impressive religious garments and talked about God’s values but never lived God’s values. “Do not do what they do,” Jesus said “for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see. (Matthew 23:3-5)


I will continue the Gospels discussion next week, with a look at Luke, whose focus is quite different from that of Matthew.


P. S.      Happy Thanksgiving to my U.S. American followers!


And today I have as well my annual request for Another Voice donations, which help me cover blog, internet, and computer costs, and supplement my retirement income. I will repeat the announcement until early December. Your consideration is greatly appreciated.

There are three ways readers can contribute:

  • With US dollars check, from a US bank, sent to:  Dr. John A. Dick, Geldenaaksebaan 85A 3001 Heverlee — BELGIUM
  • By ZELLE using:
  •  By credit card or PayPal. Simply click on this link:

Jesus According to Mark

Many contemporary biblical scholars believe that what we have called the Gospel According to Mark was composed around 70 CE but probably after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70. The Catholic 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 is currently accepted as the oldest of the Gospels but Matthew was once considered older. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) wrote in the 5th century: “Now, those four evangelists whose names have gained the most remarkable circulation over the whole world, and whose number has been fixed as four, …are believed to have been written in the order which follows: first Matthew, then Mark, thirdly Luke, lastly John.” Augustine, with all due respect, was wrong.

Mark was written for Gentile Christians in Rome, suffering Roman persecution. What struck me as I was re-reading Mark is that fear is a recurring theme that weaves through the entire narrative. Mark’s audience of course lived in fear. The first localized persecution of Christians in Rome began under Emperor Nero (37 – 68 CE).

Up until the nineteenth century, and in some circles even later, the general theological understanding was that the author of Mark was “John Mark” mentioned in Acts of Apostles. Contemporary scholars, however, generally agree that the final author of Mark remains anonymous. Although it is the oldest of the four New Testament “Gospels” Mark is also much shorter than the others, with just 16 chapters compared to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24, and John’s 21.

It is interesting to note that of the Synoptics, only Mark’s starts with the word euaggelion, the Greek word for “good news” or “glad tidings.” The word has usually been translated in English as “Gospel” but that is not the best way to translate it. “Good News” is better. And so, we read with the better translation: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) As part of the vocabulary of early Christians, the “Good News of Jesus” 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. The “Good News” for the primitive Christian community designated God’s saving actions in and through the person of Jesus.

Mark’s narration begins with John the Baptizer. John was an itinerant Hebrew preacher, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” (Mark 1:3) preparing the way for the Messiah. He had many followers, and it appears, from Mark’s text, that Jesus from Nazareth was one of them. But John 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 Jesus’ call to public ministry moving far beyond the ministry of John the Baptizer. It marked an important stage as well in Jesus’ growth in his own faith and self-understanding.

John the Baptizer (death c. CE 30) was active in the area of the Jordan River in the early 1st century. Most biblical scholars agree that John baptized Jesus and that some of Jesus’ early followers had previously been followers of John. John’s form of baptism had roots in Hebrew ceremonial washing and indicated that the baptized person was moving into a new stage of spiritual growth. John was sentenced to death and subsequently beheaded by Herod Antipas (c. 20 BCE – c. 39 CE) a 1st-century ruler of Galilee. He beheaded John because John had rebuked him for divorcing his wife Phasaelis and then unlawfully wedding Herodias, the wife of his brother.

In the Markan text we see Jesus coming to a gradual realization of who he is as a human (“Son of Humanity”) and divine (“Son of God”). His disciples as well came to a gradual realization about Jesus and his identity and meaning. Just like people today. We too are called to grow in faith, wisdom, and understanding. Fortunately, we also believe that Jesus travels with us.

Mark’s text has no account of Jesus’ virgin birth or his infancy. The focus in Mark is on the adult Jesus as Messiah. In Mark we do read: “What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the builder, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2-3)

A friend wrote me: “If Jesus’ mother was a virgin how could she have had more children?” Well, the virgin birth narrative appears only in the New Testament texts of Matthew 1:18–25 and Luke 1:26–38, texts written between 80 and 100 CE. The modern scholarly consensus is that Jesus’ virgin birth rests on very slender historical foundations and is more symbolic than historical. The ancient world had no understanding that male semen and female ovum were both needed to form a fetus.This cultural milieu was conducive to miraculous birth stories, and tales of virgin birth and the impregnation of mortal women by deities were well known in the 1st-century Greco-Roman world and Hebrew works. In the Good News texts of Matthew and Luke, the virgin birth narratives are a way to affirm Jesus’ divinity. Not his mother’s virginity.

In the fourth century, nevertheless, when Christian bishops established the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, the text in Mark affirming Jesus’ brothers and sisters became problematic. Church authorities then began to explain Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” as either children of Joseph from a previous marriage or actually “cousins” of Jesus. In the fourth century human sexuality, linked to “original sin” thanks to Augustin of Hippo became problematic.

Not everything about Mark’s Good News can be summarized in this week’s reflection. In my own re-reading of Mark this past week, three thoughts struck me: (1) an underlying theme of fear. (2) Jesus in Mark’s narration is a rejected and suffering Son of God. And (3) 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 is but one example.) Already at the end of Mark 8, we read 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 had a very good understanding of the way of the cross. Mark is clearly a narration about the suffering Messiah and of suffering and fearful discipleship.

Later in Mark’s text, 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). Peter, as biblical historians inform us, could be self-centered, aggressive, and impetuous. Jesus is here telling Peter to focus on Jesus not Peter and to pay attention to what Jesus is going through. 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 son he speaks to his father: “Abba everything is possible for you. Take this cup away from me…” Mark 14:35-36.  [The term “abba” is only found in the New Testament three times: in Mark 14:36, Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6. It is used only by Jesus and Paul. In each instance, “abba” means “father” in an intimate way.]

Jesus is deeply moved and fearful. His 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)

These things happened two thousand years ago. They happen every day as well today. Mark’s Good News is a narrative that was crafted and constructed to engage and encourage people to have faith in Jesus raised from the dead. 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 proclaimed by Jesus. In Mark 8:18-21, remember that Jesus reprimanded his disciples: “Do you not yet understand? Have you no perception? Are your minds closed? Do your eyes not see, and do your ears not hear?”

The Good News According to Mark also has a rather abrupt ending. Contemporary biblical scholars believe that it ended originally with the proclamation of the centurion in Mark 15:39 “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Already in antiquity editors and copyists, uncomfortable with such an abrupt ending, provided three different endings for Mark. All scholars hold that chapter 16 is an addition and clearly the longer endings contain material drawn from Luke and John.

We should remember — Fear and uncertainty, if one allows them to take control, can disable, blind, and paralyze people. Authoritarian leaders take advantage of this. But Christianity is not a religion of fear. It is a religion of hope, confidence, and loving support. As Jesus reminds us: “Do you not yet understand? Have you no perception? Are your minds closed? Do your eyes do not see, and do your ears not hear?”

A good reminder. Perhaps especially for older historical theologians…

Next week we take a look at Jesus in Matthew’s Good News narration.


An Historical-Critical Look at Jesus

Between now and Christmas I would like to take an historical-critical look at Jesus of Nazareth, as understood by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. The purpose of this historical-critical journey is to help us in our own contemporary understanding of Jesus. It would be helpful if people could re-read each gospel, on this journey.

Virtually all scholars of antiquity accept that Jesus was an historical figure and attempts to deny his historicity have been consistently rejected by the scholarly consensus. Jesus was a Galilean Hebrew who was born between 7 and 2 BCE and died around 30 CE. Jesus lived only in Galilee and Judea. Like most people from Galilee back then, Jesus most likely had brown eyes, dark brown to black hair and olive-brown skin. Jesus spoke Aramaic and may have also spoken Hebrew and Greek. The languages spoken in Galilee and Judea during the 1st century included the Semitic Aramaic and Hebrew languages as well as Greek, with Aramaic being the predominant language.

A friend asked me what the historical Jesus said about sex. A strong case can be made that Jesus did not directly discuss sexual activity at all. Jesus did stress the fundamental moral principle of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. That really covers ALL human actions.

Biblical perspectives on the historical Jesus are based on the Pauline epistles and the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John all writen within, say, seventy-five years of Jesus’ death. Those four gospels, however, do not represent all the early gospels available. This becomes clear in studying other gospels either discerned as sources inside the official four or else discovered as documents outside them. An example of a source hidden within the four canonical gospels is the reconstructed document known as Q, from the German word Quelle, meaning “source,” which is now imbedded within both Luke and Matthew.

An example of an other ancient Jesus document discovered outside the four canonical gospels is the Gospel of Thomas, which was found at Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt, in the winter of 1945 and is, in the view of many scholars, completely independent of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. It is also most strikingly different from them, especially in its format. It identifies itself as a gospel, but it is in fact a collection of the sayings of Jesus given without any descriptions of deeds or miracles, crucifixion or resurrection stories.

Most contemporary biblical scholars agree that Jesus began his public ministry when he was about thirty years old, as indicated in Luke 3:23. The New Testament does not specifically give the ages of any of the men and women who were Jesus’ disciples. Biblical historians suggest, however, that some of them may have joined Jesus as early as age 15 and would have still been teenagers at the time of his death and resurrection. Education for young Hebrews, in Jesus’ time, concluded at the age of 15.

What did Jesus do before his public ministry? We don’t know. We can can only speculate. Some believe Jesus was first of all like a first century “blue collar” worker in construction work outside Nazareth. Others suggest that, after his father’s death, Jesus took over the work 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.

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 Hebrew 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. Peter, as I have written earlier, was never a bishop of Rome and not the first pope. The first great acclamation of “Peter as a pope,” came from Pope Leo I who was pope from 440 CE until his death in 461 CE.

After the deaths of James, Paul, Peter, 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. 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.

Next week we will explore perspectives on Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, which is simple and succinct with a vivid account of Jesus’ ministry, emphasizing more what Jesus did than what he said.








Distorted Understandings of God?

Reading the Scriptures, whether the Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament”) or the New Testament, it is absolutely essential that one have an “historical-critical” understanding of biblical texts. This is especially important when one is confronted with a disturbing biblical text, as happened on Sunday, October 15th when the Gospel reading, Matthew 22:1-14, presented a disturbing presentation of God as cruel and vindictive. Hardly the “God is love” understanding.

First of all, the historical-critical method helps a person understand the author’s perspective: the author’s frame of mind and cultural and religious background. Secondly, the historical-critical method helps one understand the problems created by faulty translations of biblical texts. Today we are still dealing faulty translations. In previous posts, I have written about some of these. The Greek word ekklēsia, for example, means “an assembly” or a “gathering.” It is often mistranslated, however, as “church” which has a strong institutional connotation. Actually, I prefer to translate it as “community” as, for example, the “Christian community in Corinth.” Another mistranslation problem which I have touched on is the Greek word ioudaios which means “Judaean.” But it is still very problematically mistranslated as “Jew.” There were no “Jews” in the days of Jesus. There were Hebrews and the Judaeans, people from Judaea, a mountainous region of the Levant. Traditionally dominated by the city of Jerusalem, it is now part of Palestine and Israel. The word “Jew” began to appear in ancient English around the year 1000.

Let’s now return to Matthew 22:1-14 — The Parable of the Wedding Banquet 

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying:“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

“Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’  So, the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.

 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

The final version of the Gospel of Matthew is the work of an unknown Hebrew Christian author and was written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and written around 80 CE. Historians and biblical scholars know that there was a conflict between Matthew’s Hebrew Christian group and other Hebrew groups. But as we see in the Matthew 22:1-14, the author of Matthew’s Gospel seems to have relished violent-God imagery. Far short of the vision of Jesus.

If we see the king, in this Matthew 22:1-14 parable, as a representation of God, then we see Matthew’s picture of God exercising violent retributive judgment, both for the “city” — here most likely a reference to Jerusalem — “The king was furious… put those murderers to death and set their city on fire” and for the one without “wedding clothes” ‘Tie him up hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!’.

Now it is very important and worth noting that in the Gospel of Luke this very SAME parable appears. BUT the God violence is completely absent:

But Jesus said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time for the banquet, he sent his slave to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, because everything is now ready.’ But one after another they all began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yokes of oxen, and I am going out to examine them. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I just got married, and I cannot come.’

So, the slave came back and reported this to his master. Then the master of the household was furious and said to his slave, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and alleys of the city, and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ Then the slave said, ‘Sir, what you instructed has been done, and there is still room.’ So, the master said to his slave, ‘Go out to the highways and country roads and urge people to come in, so that my house will be filled. For I tell you, not one of those individuals who were invited will taste my banquet!’” (Luke 14:16-24)

The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in Matthew’s telling of the parable is a phrase often found in Matthew’s Gospel. See, for example, Mt 8: 12; 13:42; 22:13; 24:51; and 25:30. The phrase is not found in Mark or John, and only once in Luke.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we are not dealing with anything like a direct quote from Jesus. In the text of Matthew 22:1-14 we see Jesus as he was presented by this particular Gospel writer who had his own violent-God perspective found in some Hebrew scriptures. 

Right now, considering the Hebrew Scriptures, I am thinking about God’s massive flood that wiped out nearly every living thing on the planet, as described in Genesis 6-7. In Genesis 19:1-28, God rained fire and brimstone upon the people of Sodom and Gomorrah as punishment for their flagrant and wanton sins. Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned frequently in the prophets and the New Testament as symbols of human wickedness and divine retribution, and even the Quran contains a version of the story about the two cities.Then in Exodus 12:29, God blanketed Egypt with widespread plagues, including the killing of all firstborn children. The Book of Nahum, written between 626–612 BCE was very explicit about a vengeful God. In Nahum 1:2-3, for example, we read “The Lord is a jealous and vengeful God. The Lord is vengeful and strong in wrath. The Lord is vengeful against his foes. He rages against his enemies. The Lord is very patient but great in power. But the Lord punishes. His way is in whirlwind and storm.”

Genesis 1:27 says we are made in the image and likeness of God. Over the centuries, however, some acrimonius biblical writers and theologians have fallen into the error of making God in their own image and likeness.

Well, the violent perspective of Matthew 22:1-14 does indeed resonate with some earlier biblical texts. But Matthew’s perspective here is diametrically opposite to the non-violence of Jesus and totally out of sync with the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John. 

Nowhere in Sacred Scripture, in fact, is the loving nature of God more apparent than in the story told by Jesus, the historical Yeshua, about the compassionate and joyous father, usually titled The Parable of the Lost Son which we find in Luke 15:11-32.

The son had run away from home and ended up losing everything. Then as we read, starting in verse 18, the lost son says:

I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So, he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So, they began to celebrate.

An historical-critical perspective stresses that one needs to evaluate biblical texts in the total context of the scriptures. There is no doubt that the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament strongly affirm a loving and supportive God. Indeed, that “God is love.” The author who wrote the final version of Matthew had a few theological hang-ups – just like St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109) and his “satisfaction” theory of atonement, anchored in a very distorted understanding of a God who could only be made happy with the crucifixion and death of his very own Son. 

We can and we must move beyond distorted theological hang ups. Certainly, the historical Jesus did not have them. And, thinking about the entire Gospel of Matthew, one should not ignore the positive elements like the memorable Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5–7). There we find a strong affirmation of love, compassion, and selflessness. Jesus encourages his listeners to love their enemies, to forgive others, and to care for the poor and marginalized. Nothing cruel or vindictive about Jesus. May we live and move forward in his spirit.