Infancy Narratives

Early Christians did not focus on Jesus’ birth. The key Jesus-event for them was Easter. They rejoiced in their belief that Jesus was raised from the dead and entered a new form of life: promising new life for all who believed and followed him. Christians were and are Easter people.

It was not really until around 200 CE that Christians began to commemorate a Jesus birth date. Not at first on December 25 but on January 6. Most likely the earliest source for setting December 25 as the date for celebrating Jesus’ birth is a document written by Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170 – c. 235). Hippolytus was an important second-third century Christian theologian. Early Christians connected Jesus to Sun imagery through the use of such phrases as his being the “Sun of righteousness.” They Christianized and took over the Roman celebration of the winter solstice which was held on December 25. 

New Testament accounts of the birth and early life of Jesus – the “Infancy Narratives” — are found only in Matthew 1:1 – 2:23 and Luke 1:5 – 2:52. 

The Infancy Narratives are certainly not fairy tales. But they are not strictly historical either. Our Bible contains a variety of literary forms by which the truths of our faith are expressed and communicated. We find poetry, drama, symbolism, metaphors, imaginative recreations of past events, and varying degrees of historical narration. But the Bible is primarily about understanding our faith. It is not primarily a history book. I resonate with the observation by the biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan: “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

Most people today ignore the differences found in Jesus’ birth accounts in Matthew and Luke. They simply combine the accounts without noticing the differences. Very importantly they don’t know or realize that folkloric legends that arose centuries after Jesus’ birth get thrown into the mix. 

Most of our contemporary Jesus-birth imagery comes actually from the Catholic friar Francis of Assisi (c.1181 – 1226). Francis created the Christmas Creche tradition. That tradition originated in Greccio, Italy, where Francis had visited a community to celebrate Christmas. Francis had wanted to create a scene that would be symbolic of Jesus’ birth and that would leave an everlasting impact on those in attendance. He therefore prepared a manger, which was a feeding trough for farm animals, and hay. He even brought an ox and donkey to where he prepared the altar, on which placed a statue of baby Jesus. The scenery had clearly symbolized the poverty and plainness that was associated with Jesus’ birth into the world.

Three kings? Neither Matthew nor Luke mentions “three kings.” Matthew mentions “wise men,” magoi in Greek, from which we get the English word “magi.” Although the “magi” are now commonly referred to as “kings,” there is nothing in Matthew that implies that they were rulers of any kind. In addition, nowhere in the New Testament do we find them called “Balthasar, Melchior, and Casper.” Those names are creations from the 8th century CE. 

In Matthew we do find: the visit of the wise men, the star, and Herod’s plot to kill Jesus. These are not found in Luke however. 

In Luke on the other hand we find: the birth of John the Baptist, the shepherds, and the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. But these are not found in Matthew.

The differences between Matthew and Luke are nearly impossible to reconcile, although they do share some similarities. 

The U.S. American biblical scholar and Catholic priest, John Meier (1942 – 2022), often stressed that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is not to be taken as an historical fact. Meier describes it as a “theological affirmation put into the form of an apparently historical narrative.” In other words, the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David led to the development of a story about his birth in Bethlehem, because King David (c. 1010 – c. 970 BCE) was born and raised in Bethlehem. 

The Bethlehem Church of the Nativity, built in the fourth century CE and located in the West Bank, Palestine, is built over a cave where supposedly Mary gave birth to Jesus. The church was originally commissioned by Constantine the Great (c. 272 –  337 CE) a short time after his mother Helena’s visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 325–326 CE. Helena had been instructed by her son to find important Christian places and artifacts, since Christianity was becoming the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. She hired “helpful” tour guides.

Helena paid her tour guides very well, and they came up with creative “discoveries” for her that greatly pleased her son Constantine. Helena’s tour guides found the a bunch of old bones called the “relics of the Magi.” They were kept first in Constantinople; but then moved to Milan. Eight centuries later, in 1164, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa took the “relics of the Magi” and gave them to the Archbishop of Cologne. Whatever they really are – and there has been great debate about that since 1864 when the remains were examined — the relic’s are still in Cologne Cathedral, which I have visited many times, behind the main altar.

[Helena’s tour guides also found for her: three pieces of wood said to be actual pieces of the “True Cross,” two thorns, said to be from Jesus’ crown of thorns, a piece of a bronze nail, said to be from the crucifixion itself. And finally, they found a piece of wood said to be from the sign Pontius Pilate was said to have erected over Jesus when he was crucified.]

Some differences in Infancy Narratives: Unlike the infancy narrative in Luke, Matthew mentions nothing about a census, nothing about a journey to Bethlehem, and nothing about Jesus’ birth in a stable. In Matthew, after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the Wise Men from the east visit Baby Jesus at Joseph and Mary’s house in Bethlehem. They were led there by a star, to fulfil the Hebrew Scriptures prophecy of Micah 5:2, that a ruler for Israel would come from Bethlehem. Most contemporary scholars do not consider Matthew’s story about a star leading the Wise Men to Jesus to have been an historical event. The ancients believed that astronomical phenomena were connected to terrestrial events. Linking a birth to the first appearance of a star was consistent with a popular belief that each person’s life was linked to a particular star. 

According to Luke, a census was called for throughout the Roman Empire. It meant that Joseph and a very pregnant Mary – probably between 12 and 16 years old — had to go to Bethlehem, since Joseph was of the “house of David.” When they got there, there was “no room for them in the inn,” and so Jesus was born and put in the stable’s manger. (Some people really don’t know that a manger is a feeding trough for animals. The English word comes from the Old French word mangier — meaning “to eat” — from the Latin mandere, meaning “to chew.”) 

Difficulties in Luke: There are major difficulties in accepting Luke’s Roman census account. First it could not have happened in the days of King Herod, who had died in 4 BCE. Luke refers to a worldwide census under Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was not appointed as the governor of Syria until 6 CE, when Herod had already been dead for ten years. In addition, according to the annals of ancient Roman history, no such census under Caesar Augustus ever took place. In fact, there was no single census of the entire Roman Empire under Augustus. More importantly, no Roman census ever required people to travel from their own homes to those of distant ancestors. A census of Judaea, therefore, would not have affected Joseph and his family, living in Galilee. 

Luke clearly followed the models of historical narrative which were current in his day. He needed an explanation for bringing Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, in order to have Jesus born there. Let’s call the journey to Bethlehem an example of Luke’s “creative historical imagination.”

In Luke, we have no Wise Men, as we saw in Matthew, but angels appear to lowly shepherds, telling them to go visit Baby Jesus. The angels then sing out the famous words of the Gloria: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will toward all people.”

Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth. Then forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to complete Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth. Mary and Joseph simply followed the regulations in Leviticus 12:1-8. The holy family then returned to their home in Nazareth. (Notice that Luke makes no mention of a trip to Egypt.)

Luke’s Infancy Narrative concludes with a story of the very bright twelve-year-old Jesus. While on a trip to Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph lose Jesus. They later find him in the temple astounding the temple teachers with his understanding. 

Today of course – more than two thousand years later – we too are astounded and encouraged not just by Jesus’ understanding but by his vision and his spirit that truly animates us and gives us hope for today and tomorrow.

Next week we take a look at the Gospel According to John.



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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:

(1) With US dollars check, from a US bank, sent to:

Dr. John A. Dick

Geldenaaksebaan 85A 

  3001 Heverlee — BELGIUM

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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
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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.


Cults: No Need to Worry and No Need to Think

For a number of readers, last week’s reflection about authoritarianism raised questions about cults.  Cults are dangerous.

They are closely related of course.

According to Hebrew tradition, when the legendary Moses went up into Mount Sinai, in the 13th century BCE, to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:12-18), he left the Israelites for forty days and forty nights. The Israelites became restless and fearful in his absence. Turning away from God, and led by Aaron the brother of Moses, they directed their devotion to worshiping the Golden Calf. It was immediate, provided simple answers, and required no thinking. An early cult.

There are of course more contemporary examples, where people become fearful, want immediate and simple answers to life’s big issues and problems. They stop thinking. Their critical faculties decline and they surrender to the simple but phony propaganda of cultic leaders. And they are usually supported by far-right movements with strong racial supremacy.

Quite often the line between conventional religion and a cult is not so clearly defined. Cults are exclusive, highly secretive, and authoritarian. Some cults even proclaim Christianity, but bear no resemblance to anything truly and authentically Christian. There are as well political cults, which attract and control because they act like captivating religions, whose only demands are obedience and unquestioned loyalty.

A typical cult has a somewhat theatrical and unaccountable leader, who persuades by coercion and exploits the cult’s members economically, sexually, or in some other way. Cult leaders shun and ostracize people who don’t accept the cult’s exclusive claims to truth. When it comes to truth, cult leaders gradually turn fantasy and fiction into accepted truths by continually repeating false statements in rhetoric, propaganda, and the media. Cult leaders are false prophets.

The American psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton (born 1926), known for his studies of the psychological causes and effects of political violence, delineates three common features of destructive cults:

(1) A living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and who becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.

(2) A process of indoctrination, persuasion or thought reform, commonly called “brainwashing.” In this process, members of the group often do things that are not in their own best interest, but in the best interest of the group and its leader.

(3) Economic, sexual, social, and political exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

The warning signs of cultic development are clear:

• It advocates authoritarianism without meaningful accountability. Leaders, if not downright evil are self-centered, mediocre, crass, and juvenile.

• No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry. Dissent and criticism are not permitted. Those who dissent are marginalized, excluded from decision-making, and labeled “troublemakers” or “dangerous,” or even demonic.

• The leader promotes exaggerated and misguided fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophes, evil conspiracies, and persecutions.

• Members of the cult believe their leader was sent by God to change the world; and all must therefore be obedient and loyal to the leader.

We all need to be alert to cultic leaders and groups. They are unhealthy and pernicious. We need to have the courage to speak out. They are people who thrive on fear and fear of social change; and they take advantage of people by controlling information and promoting fear. In the process, they support a very unhealthy kind of religion.

Take care,


A Reflection About Contemporary Authoritarianism

Around the globe today, authoritarian regimes have become more effective at circumventing the norms and institutions meant to support basic human liberties. Even in countries with long-established democracies, authoritarian forces have exploited the shortcomings in their systems. They are distorting national politics to promote hatred, violence, and unbridled power.

According to a recent report from Freedom House in Washington DC,           countries that have been struggling between democracy and authoritarianism are increasingly turning toward authoritarianism. (Freedom House is a U.S. American organization devoted to the support and defense of democracy around the world. It was formally established in New York in 1941 to promote the struggle against fascism. Currently, Freedom House publishes an annual report on new media freedom, Freedom on the Net, which reaches critical audiences in the tech world and in policy circles. Freedom House analysts regularly issue interpretive assessments on repressive techniques employed by leading autocracies, including China, Turkey, and Russia.)

Authoritarianism uses and abuses people. It destroys human freedom to think, to act, and tolive. It manipulates people and often destroys the “undesirables.”

The historical Jesus stressed that human greatness is based on compassion and service. His authority was used to motivate and guide people, to heal, support, and call to conversion. Some “Christian leaders” still don’t get the message.

In the United States, “Trumpism” has become an authoritarian cult based on DJT’s persona. Contemporary Republican extremists have paralyzed the government in the midst of an unusually dangerous time. The 2024 U.S. presidential election will be significant to the the least. 

Contemporary cultural change and human migration make some observers anxious and fearful. They feel threatened. They neither hear nor understand the words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Instead they prefer to circle their wagons, or build their walls, to protect “us against them.” In ignorance, fear, and anxiety they surrender to the exaggerated rhetoric and growing influence of authoritarian leaders. This is becoming a contemporary leadership problem. “Leaders” who should be be trusted for wisdom, intelligence, and humanitarian service are becoming hard-nosed autocrats, surrendering to the psychological and mental disorder of authoritarianism.

Honesty and integrity are replaced by self-promoting deceit and dishonesty. Self-centered authoritarians are self-stroking and need to feel good. Life for them boils down to what one can get and what one can get away with. Life is jungle warfare in a world of lazy and evil “losers.”

Creeping authoritarianism is becoming a destructive and sinister social virus that shows itself in increased racial violence, increased anti-Semitism, extreme political and social polarization, and the rise of militant Neo-Nazi groups.

Authoritarian “leaders” can only succeed because because authoritarian followers applaud and support them. 

Much more so than the average person, authoritarian followers go through life with impaired thinking. Their reasoning is often sloppy and based on prejudiced beliefs and a fierce dogmatism, that rejects evidence and logic. 

Cognitive defects in authoritarian followers enable them to follow any would-be dictator. As Hitler reportedly said,“What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.”

So what does one do?

  • Well, we must first of all acknowledge that authoritarian followers are extremely resistant to change. The more one learns about authoritarianism, the more one realizes how difficult it will be to reach people who are so ferociously aggressive and fiercely defensive. Polarization is now extreme and deeply rooted.
  • We need to educate and promote, starting at home with little children, a balanced education: (1) handing on authentic information, (2) teaching people where to find correct information, and (3) giving people the skills to be well-informed critical thinkers.
  • Our Christian communities, more than ever, must become, in the Spirit of Christ, compassionate gatherings of multicultural, multi-ethnic, and all-gender, supportive friends.
  • We need to courageously speak out and we need to help other people courageously speak out.
  • If something is wrong or something is untrue, people need to strongly and clearly state that it is wrong or untrue. 
  • Those who courageously speak out need the strong support of friends gathered around them. Going alone is increasingly difficult if not impossible in our cyber-linked world.
  • We need to be on guard, as well, that we do not become promoters of polarization and vicious partisanship. We need to learn how to work together for the common good. 
  • As Jesus said in Matthew (chapter 12): “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.”


PS  A helpful book is The Global Rise of Authoritarianism in the 21st Century, edited by Berch Berberoglu, Copyright 2021.

Belief and Critical Thinking

Last week I was thinking about aggiornamento the Italian word meaning “bringing up to date.” It was made famous by Pope John XXIII (1881 – 1963) and was one of the key words at the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965).

As we go through life, we adjust our vision and beliefs. We re-shape our Christian faith understandings as we go along life’s road and as our world changes. And of course,as we confront our own ups and downs.

There is much to be learned and appreciated from opening the doors to one’s mind and “bringing up to date” by letting new ideas and beliefs come in. St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” Religiously, it took me a long time to become an adult. Growing up I always had lots of questions but falsely believed it was wrong to ask questions about church teachings. (Some “conservative” bishops and their followers still think that way.)

Fortunately, in my case, one of my college philosophy professors, a priest, helped me grow up. He reminded me that Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE) — the founder of Western philosophy and among the first moral philosophers of the ethical tradition of thought — had famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” 

By questioning and keeping a sense of wonder alive, my philosophy teacher – my trustworthy guide – said we remain engaged in the search for truth and the pursuit of what makes life worth living. Over the years I have tried to help my students become informed and open-minded critical believers, hoping to be a trustworthy guide for them. I have always stressed that being an open-minded critical believer greatly enriches a person’s life. 

I see seven important elements in being an open-minded critical believer:

(1) Being an open-minded critical believer enables one to experience new ideas and fresh thoughts that stimulate personal growth as they challenge old visions, old understandings, and old beliefs. It can be very liberating to look at one’s contemporary world through an open mind. I once thought that only Catholics had “the truth.”  But then I began to observe and question and came to realization that ALL Christian churches are moving toward the truth and no single church has all the truth.

(2) Being an open-minded critical believer promotes personal change, growth, and transformation. Opening up our minds to new ideas enables us to change what we think as well as expand our view of the world. It enables one to adjust beliefs, as one begins to think with a more open mind. I once thought it impossible for women to be ordained. I once thought that Jesus’ disciples were all only men. Now I know that both understandings are pure nonsense. Historical reality is broader and richer than I originally thought. Today I understand, as well, that all official church teachings and dogmas – even those proclaimed “infallible” – are time-bound, culture-bound, and provisional. Perhaps they made sense yesterday but just don’t work today. Institutions need to grow and change as well. Of course, institutions don’t change unless the leaders change.

(3) Being an open-minded critical believer also makes a person vulnerable.  In agreeing to have an open-minded view of the world, we acknowledge we don’t know everything. We are open to criticism. We accept that there are possibilities we may not have considered. For some this vulnerability can be terrifying. But it can also be tremendously exhilarating. The jar is half full or half empty. It depends on one’s perspective. Here I would stress as well that we need to be supportive of those people who now think that all the things they had ever believed have turned out to be wrong and that they have nothing to take their place. We need to be compassionate guides, like my college professor mentioned above.

(4)  Being an open-minded critical believer helps one see and acknowledge personal shortcomings and mistakes. With an open mind one begins to see things from other people’s  perspectives; and one can recognize the mistakes one has made. From time to time, we all fail and fall. The challenge is to acknowledge it and then get back up again and continue the journey. That is the virtue of Christian humility and courage!

(5) Being an open-minded critical believer strengthens oneself and gives stability. Open-mindedness presents a platform upon which a person can build, putting one idea on top of another. With an open mind, one learns about new things; and one uses new ideas to build on old ideas. In my field we call this ongoing theological development. Dangerous stuff for fundamentalists, who are more comfortable living in the past. 

(6) Being an open-minded critical believer helps one gain confidence. When a person really lives with an open mind, one develops a stronger sense of self. One can respect and appreciate, but is no longer confined by the beliefs of others. Then the respectful and humble dialogue can and should begin.

(7) Being an open-minded critical believer promotes self-honesty. Being open-minded means admitting that one is not all-knowing. Even if one is an older theologian! Whatever “truth” one holds, each person must realize that the underlying reality in its depth has more to it than anyone realizes. This understanding creates a sense of honesty that characterizes anyone who lives with an open mind.

For anyone who wants to safely travel the road of life, being an open-minded critical believer is absolutely essential. As Jesus reminds us in the Gospel According to John: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”


Reshaping the Roman Catholic Church 

I wrote a few weeks ago about the synodality movement. This week the Synod on Synodality is getting started in Rome. This is a major and very significant event in the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. I hope it will be successful, which means that it will lead to a genuine transformation of Roman Catholic structure and pastoral practice.

Certainly, as journalist Robert Mickens observed, last week, in La Croix International:“Both fans and foes of the Synod are campaigning and lobbying hard to pressure the assembly’s participants and Church officials to adopt their respective views. A number of Catholic reform groups, almost entirely made up of lay people, have even come to Rome to push for changes such as the ordination of women to the diaconate and priesthood, Church blessings for same-sex couples, a greater lay participation in the exercise of ecclesial governance, and a whole-scale reform of the way candidates are selected and prepared for ministry, as well as how bishops are chosen… The list goes on.”

I am not a pessimist but a cautiously optimistic realist. I remember my great excitement about the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, held in Rome in October 2019. 

The Amazon Synod’s agenda, expressing the feelings and desires of many representatives of the Amazon people, had called for ordained married clergy, a reexamination of the role of women in the church, and a number of liturgical and pastoral change’s reflecting the local culture of indigenous peoples rather than the traditional Roman Catholic Western European culture. In the end, it was mostly a lot of nice talk. It is often easier to be talking about change than to be making change happpen.

If this October 2023 Synod on Synodality follows the path of the Amazon Synodwith minimal pastoral implementation, I suspect it will lead to widespread Catholic dissatisfaction. And more people will be leaving the Catholic Church. I truly hope the current Synod succeeds. We need a Roman Catholic restructuring and an energetic pastoral transformation.

As Robert Mickens observed, people pro and con the Synod have been streaming to Rome. Two significant former Vatican “leaders” who are now highly critical of the Synod on Synodality are the German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller and the U.S. American Cardinal Raymond Burke.

Müller was appointed head of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and held that position until 2017, when he was removed by Pope Francis. During an interview on the conservative Catholic news network EWTN in October last year, he warned that the current synodal process could result in a “hostile takeover of the Catholic Church.” He had called the proposed introduction of indigenous culture elements into the liturgy at the Amazon Synod held in 2019: “The paganization of the Catholic liturgy.” 

Cardinal Burke sees the synod process underway around the world inflicting “evident and grave harm” on the Catholic Church, as he wrote in the foreword to a book published in August The Synodal Process Is a Pandora’s Box, by José Antonio Ureta and Julio Loredo de Izcu. Burke is considered the voice of Catholic traditionalism and is a major proponent of the Tridentine Mass: the traditional Latin Mass, going back to 1570 CE and celebrated with the priest’s back to the congregation. Cardinal Burke is the former head of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church.

In the United States, a bishop who is a major critic of the Synod is Bishop Joseph Strickland, Bishop of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas. As the New York Times reported on October 2nd, Bishop Strickland has accused Pope Francis of undermining the Catholic faith. Strickland has suggested that other Vatican officials, as well, have veered so far from church teaching that they are no longer Catholic, and has warned that the global Synodal gathering that opens this week at the Vatican could threaten “basic truths” of Catholic doctrine. Bishop Strickland has great popularity among conservative U.S. Catholics. He has has a weekly radio show, and more than 145,000 followers on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

In any event, a good friend asked what I think a successful post-synodal implementation of changes would mean.

  • I want to see a church that is not a strongly doctrinaire, authoritarian institutionbut a truly  supportive community of friends: people truly striving to live in the spirit of Christ. The innate danger in all institutions is that, if left unchecked, they cease being service-oriented structures and become hard-nosed self-serving institutions demanding unquestioned loyalty. That leads to a kind of institutional idolatry.
  • I want to see a church that affirms the dignity and equality of ALL people — regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I don’t want to read just a lot of official institutional rhetoric. I want to see changed institutional behavior. Talk is easy. We need male and female ordained ministers. IGBTQ+ people should be accepted and welcomed in church ministries and employment. For too long church leaders have patronized, insulted, or simply removed people who do not fit their mold. And it still happens.
  • I want to see an honest and humble church that realizes it does not possess all the truth and that it has to collaborate with a variety of people in pursuit of the truth. It has to acknowledge as well that all church doctrines are time and culture bound. Official doctrines are provisional and changeable. Some doctrines may have been meaningful in the past but just don’t work today. Others have evolved more from religious fantasy and folklore. Like, as I wrote a few weeks ago, that Peter was the first pope. That he was the first pope is pure fantasy from the fifth century. He was never a bishop of Rome.
  • I want to see a church that asks questions and welcomes the questioner. Asking questions brings greater self-knowledge and a more realistic life understanding. All the great advances in human knowledge have come from people who dared to ask questions. Isaac Newton asked: “Why does an apple fall from a tree?” and “Why does the moon not fall into the Earth?” Charles Darwin asked: “Why do the Galápagos Islands have so many species not found elsewhere?” Albert Einstein asked: “What would the universe look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?” And of course, Jesus of Nazareth asks in the synoptic gospels: “Who do people say that I am?” In John 7:19, Jesus asks: “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”
  • I want a church in which the higher-up ordained leaders dress and act like normal contemporary leadership people not museum-piece Renaissance princes. I often think about Jesus’ observation in Mark 12:38: “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes…”
  • I want a church in which leadership people are elected by the community for set terms of office, like five or ten years. This applies to the bishop of Rome as well. 
  • Last but certainly not least, I want a church that promotes personal and community spirituality and encourages and promotes their growth in the stages of faith development.

We live in the present. God is alive and closely with us right now. Not as a controlling authority but as a loving companion. But for many people today the old anthropomorphisms just don’t work. God is just as much Mother as Father, but much more than that. Why don’t Christian religious leaders sit down with, pray, and meditate with leaders of non-Christian religions? Jesus was not a Christian and God is much more than a Christian. As a very good priest friend wrote to me last week: “Jesus didn’t start an institution or teach law, he formed a small community and taught the Gospel.” 

We are on a journey. We have not yet arrived. The Spirit us with us. And a healthy Christian community is our GPS.


PS — I will now refrain from comments about the October Synod until it is over.