The Gospel According to Matthew

This week I begin with some general biblical observations and then turn to Matthew’s Gospel.

Each of the four gospels was carefully crafted to present the message and person of Jesus to a specific socio-religious audience. Depending upon the audience and its background and specific needs, elements mentioned or stressed in one gospel are minimized or even ignored in another. 

Last week we saw that the Gospel According to Mark makes no mention of a virgin birth or of Jesus’ infancy. The gospels of Matthew and Luke do indeed mention a virgin birth. Are they reporting historic fact or their own creative suppositions? Certainly their accounts of Jesus’ infancy are creative and quite different in some details. It is very difficult to determine Jesus’ actual birthplace.The evangelists Matthew and Luke, who alone speak of it, contradict each other. Many contemporary scholars presume Jesus was actually born in Nazareth. I don’t get into this debate.

Matthew has Jesus’ family go to Egypt and then return in order to portray Jesus as the new Moses. The gospels, again, are about the meaning of the Christ-event. They are anchored in the life and meaning of the historical Jesus of Nazareth and belief in him. They do have historical elements but, strictly speaking, they are not historical accounts. Just about all scholars of antiquity agree that a human Jesus existed, but scholars differ on the historicity of specific episodes described in the biblical accounts. The gospels contain bits of history, parables, metaphor, symbol, re-interpreted passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, and imagined scenarios for key events in the life of Jesus. 

Translations of the scriptures are necessary, of course, because people in different places and times speak a variety of languages. Most contemporary scripture readers are not fluent in biblical Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. Perhaps I am a bit unconventional. I can squeak by in Hebrew, but my Greek and Latin are really quite good. 

Ideally, people who want a more comprehensive understanding of biblical texts should use a good biblical commentary, because all translations are filtered through the vision and vocabulary of the translator. Sometimes this creates problems in correctly understanding a passage. 

In recent years, for example, scholars of the New Testament have suggested that we seriously reconsider how one translates the Greek term ioudaios, originally translated in English as “Jews.” Ioudaios is more accurately translated as “Judean,” not “Jew.” The Greek ioudaios and the Latin iudaeus come from the biblical Hebrew word Yehudi meaning “from the Tribe of Judah.”  

Please note: Up until the year 1524, there was no letter “J” in the alphabet, just the letter “I”. The letter “J” was invented by Gian Giorgio Trissino, an Italian author and grammarian who lived from 1478 to 1550. By way of example, the initials INRI so often seen on crucifixes, represent the Latin words: Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum) the Latin inscription (found in John 19:19), which in English translates correctly to “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Judeans.” But not “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

There were no “Jews” in the days of Jesus. There were Hebrews, anchored in the Abrahamic religious tradition. And the word “Jew” did not appear in the first English translations of the New Testament. The best known early editions of the New Testament in English are the Douai Rheims edition and the King James Authorized Edition. The Douai Rheims translation was first printed in 1582; but the word “Jew” did not appear in it. The King James Authorized translation was first published in 1611. The word “Jew” did not appear in it either. 

For the very first time the word “Jew” appeared in both of these well-known editions in their 18th century revised versions. “So, what?” a friend asked. Well, since the late 19th and early 20th centuries the word “Jew” has been used increasingly in a pejorative way and has greatly contributed to antisemitism. Expressions like “Jew someone” or “Jew lawyer” or “Jew down” have been common negative terms. Antisemitism, unfortunately, is once again showing its ugly face on both sides of the Atlantic.

Antisemitism arose because over the years, a great distortion grew up around “Jews,” linking them with the death of Jesus and with evil and avarice. One can recall Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 CE play “The Jew of Malta” and its demonic image of Jews. And in Shakespeare (1564 – 1626) we find the “Jew” moneylender Shylock and his bloodthirsty desire to claim his “pound of flesh.” Today, some people try to avoid using the word “Jew” and use “Jewish” instead. Nevertheless, in the days of Jesus there were no Jews. There were Hebrews, who belonged to the Abrahamic religious tradition. Jesus grew up in that Hebrew tradition.

Jews did not condemn Jesus. Judean religious leaders in Jerusalem condemned him. Jews did not kill Jesus. Judean religious leaders turned Jesus over to the Roman Pontius Pilate, the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea; and the Romans crucified Jesus. Pontius Pilate called Jesus “King of the Judeans” to anger the Judeans and to stress in a demeaning way that he saw Jesus as a trouble-maker, promoting rebellion against the Roman Empire.

Now to focus more directly on Matthew:

Last week I stressed that the Gospel According to Mark was designed for Gentile- Christians in Rome, and composed by an anonymous author, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Mark’s Gentile-Christians in Rome faced and feared persecution and death at the hands of Roman authorities; but they also had to live with discrimination from Hebrew-Christians living in Rome. Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, was actually written for Hebrew-Christians. 

Although a second-century tradition had held that the author was Matthew, a former tax collector and one of  the Twelve Apostles, contemporary scholars maintain that we have no direct evidence of that Matthew’s authorship. The Gospel According to Matthew, was most likely written by an anonymous Hebrew-Christian scribe between the years 80 and 90 CE. He was not an eye-witness to the Jesus events but collected various traditions and sayings by and about Jesus and put them in one long essay. Some scholars say the final edition could even have been written as late as 110.

The author of Matthew wrote for a community of Greek-speaking Hebrew-Christians located in Roman Syria. The largest city in Roman Syria, Antioch, is often mentioned. Its ruins today lie close to Antakya, Turkey. There were Gentile-Christian members in the community, but they were expected to obey Hebrew religious norms. Some scholars say even circumcision. Jesus in the Gospel According to Matthew came, therefore, “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17).

For Matthew, Jesus was the great embodiment of all preceding Hebrew history. Matthew’s author constructed a Jesus infancy narrative that begins with “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, Son of David, son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1-17). Matthew’s genealogy features four notable Hebrew women, a number of  fulfillment passages that relate Jesus to prophetic Hebrew Scripture texts; and allusions to famous Hebrew men of the past. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus, like Moses, was rescued as an infant from a murderous king (Matthew 2:16-18). In Matthew’s narration, Jesus’ ministry begins with three temptations in the desert. They correspond to the experiences of Israel in the desert, after the Exodus. Jesus is God’s great liberator, the new Moses.

The Gospel of Matthew includes some 600 of the Gospel of Mark’s 661 verses but it adds about 220 additional verses, shared by Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark.

Matthew contains five discourses by Jesus (Matthew 5:1-7:29; 10:1-42; 13:1-52; 18:1-35; and 23:1 through 25:46) which symbolized, for the evangelist’s Hebrew-Christian audience, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. 

  • In the first of these, the Sermon on Mount, the rabbi Jesus, like a new Moses, presents his definitive teaching about what it means to be his follower. Jesus, in Matthew, is the great teacher. Notice how Jesus so often says “you have heard it said of old . . . but I say to you . (Matthew 5:21-22) Rabbi Jesus takes a teaching found in the Hebrew Scriptures and then intensifies and expands on it.
  • In the second, Jesus commissions the Twelve Disciples, symbolic again for the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
  • In the third discourse, we see opposition to Jesus coming to a head and accusations that his deeds are done through the power of Satan. Jesus in turn accuses his opponents of blaspheming the Holy Spirit and challenges his disciples to understand his teachings.
  • In the fourth discourse, we see that the increasing opposition to Jesus will result in his crucifixion in Jerusalem and that his disciples must therefore prepare for his absence. The instructions for the post-crucifixion community emphasized responsibility and humility. In this section we read as well that Simon, newly renamed Peter (from Petros, in Greek, meaning “rock”), calls Jesus “the Christ, the son of the living God” and Jesus states that on this “bedrock” (petra in Greek) he will build his “community.” The Greek word in the text is ekklesia which is often mistranslated as “church.”  

This Matthew passage has become the text traditionally cited by Roman Catholic Church authority as the scriptural basis for its concept of the authority of the papacy. Nevertheless, the authenticity of the uniquely Matthean material (Matthew 16:16–19) has been widely discussed and has been challenged on the basis that verses 16–19 are found only in Matthew and that the inclusion of the word “church” in most translations suggests a level of organization acquired only at a later period. Nowhere in the New Testament is Peter described as being supreme over the other apostles. And as I wrote two weeks ago, we know that Peter did not establish the Christian community in Rome and Peter was never a bishop of Rome and certainly not “the  first pope.” The Roman Catholic theologians Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) and John P. Meier (1942 – 2022) were quite emphatic about this in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity, (Paulist Press 1983).

  • In the fifth discourse, Jesus travels toward Jerusalem, and the opposition intensifies. When he arrives he is soon in conflict with the Temple’s traders and religious leaders. The disciples ask about the future, and in his final discourse Jesus speaks of the coming end. Jesus warns that there will be false messiahs, earthquakes, and persecutions. His disciples must prepare  themselves for ministry to all the nations. Matthew notes that Jesus has finished all his words, and attention now turns to the crucifixion. 

(Thinking about Jesus’ warning about earthquakes, the author of the Gospel of Matthew was no doubt aware of the first century earthquake history of the ancient city of Antioch, near today’s Antakya, Turkey. And we are certainly very aware of it today! On February 6, 2023, much of the cultural heritage of ancient Antioch was destroyed by an earthquake. The downtown area of today’s Antakya was devastated by the earthquake that killed at least 40,000 people across the country and in neighboring Syria.)

The central message of Jesus’ preaching in the Gospel of Matthew is the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven and the need for repentance, and a complete change of heart and conduct, on the part of those who are to receive this great gift of God (Matthew 4:17). The Kingdom of Heaven is both a present reality and a future hope. It is dawning already. The ethic that Jesus lived and taught, exemplified in the Sermon on the Mount, was essentially a “Kingdom ethic.” 

In Matthew’s Gospel, Galilee is the setting for most of Jesus’ ministry. He leaves there for Judea only in Matthew 19:1. And Jesus’ ministry in the Judean city Jerusalem, the goal of his journey, is limited to just a few days (Matthew 21:1–25:46).

Matthew makes twenty-nine references to the “Kingdom of Heaven.” The gospels of Mark and Luke tend to prefer the term “Kingdom of God.” Matthew’s use of the word “Heaven” rather than “God” is often seen as a reflection of the evangelist’s sensibilities to the Hebrew background of his Hebrew-Christian audience and he therefore tried to avoid the word “God.” 

The word for God used most often in the Hebrew Bible is the Tetragrammaton: in Hebrew: יהוה, and in our alphabet often written: YHWH. Hebrews traditionally did not pronounce it. This was based on their understanding of the third of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not take His name in vain.” Many contemporary Jewish people do not write “God” but “G-d” based on this old understanding.

What strikes me as I re-read the Gospel According to Matthew, is Jesus the rabbi: the great teacher. And I will conclude this week’s reflection with my own contemporary reflection based on Matthew 5:1-10, where Jesus goes up a hill with his disciples and begins to teach what we have come to know as the Sermon on the Mount. It is truly a charter for Christian life today.

The Christian Charter Based on the Sermon on the Mount:

How fortunate, happy, and blessed are those people, who are humble in spirit. The humble in spirit realize that greatness is achieved through service not domination. Power and control over people have no place in the community of faith. The humble in spirit realize they are not masters of the universe. They understand they cannot survive on their own.

How fortunate, happy, and blessed are the gentle. The gentle are the meek: those people who can make room for someone else, even for the “losers.” They are neither so arrogant nor so self-centered that they see only what they want to see. Arrogant and crude belittling of other people has no place in the words and behavior of those who claim to be followers of Christ.

How fortunate, happy, and blessed are those who have compassion. They can feel the pain of another. They put an arm around the fearful and the oppressed. They do not simply send their “thoughts and prayers,” and then disappear. They lift oppressive burdens from the shoulders of the old, the infirmed, and the impoverished. They stay with them.

How fortunate,  happy, and blessed are those who show mercy to others. Merciful love is assistance without conditions. Genuine Christians are not fear mongers who scapegoat Hispanics, feminists, blacks, gays, trans, or immigrants.

How fortunate, happy, and blessed are the pure of heart. The pure of heart are honest-hearted. They are not two-faced, with hidden agendas or secret desires to advance themselves by using and abusing other people. They do not joke, make fun of, or demean other people. The pure of heart honor and search for truth. They do not fabricate “facts.”

How fortunate, happy, and blessed are those who work for peace. Those who work for peace do not erect walls. They do not launch oppressive trade wars. They are bridge builders. They cooperate rather than compete. They struggle to resolve political, social, and religious polarization through tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect. To paraphrase Matthew 25:52, in contemporary language. “put your guns away, for all who draw their guns will perish by guns.”

The Christian Charter is our examination of conscience this Lent.

  • Jack

The Gospel According to Mark

Most contemporary biblical scholars suggest that what we call Mark’s Gospel was composed around 70 CE but probably after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70. The biblical scholar Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) saw an unambiguous reference to the destruction of the temple in Mark 13:2, when Jesus says “You see these great buildings ? Not a single stone will be left on another. Everything will be destroyed.”

Mark was written for Gentile-Christians in Rome, suffering Roman persecution as well as discrimination from Hebrew-Christians, who felt superior to Gentile converts. Up until the nineteenth century, and in some circles even later, the general understanding was that the author of Mark’s Gospel was “John Mark” mentioned in Acts of Apostles (Acts 12:12). Contemporary scholars, however, reject that thesis and generally agree that the final author of Mark remains anonymous. 

Although it is the oldest of the four, Mark’s Gospel is also much shorter than the other gospels, with just 16 chapters compared to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24, and John’s 21. It is interesting to note that of the Synoptic Gospels, only Mark’s starts with the Greek word for “good news” euaggelion from which we get the Latin word evangelium and the English word evangelical.  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Our English word gospel comes from an earlier English word gōdspel (gōd “good” + spel “news”).

As part of the vocabulary of early Christians, the “good news” did not refer to a specific type of literature nor to a book. The term had a more dynamic meaning. It was a proclamation of an event of major importance. For first century Christians, the Good News (Gospel) designated God’s saving actions in and through the person of Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel narration begins with John the Baptizer. John was an itinerant preacher, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” (Mark 1:3) preparing the way for the Messiah. Baptism had a long tradition among Hebrew religious people. Being baptized by John demonstrated a desire for spiritual cleansing and a commitment to follow God’s law in anticipation of the Messiah’s arrival. Some scholars suggest that John belonged to the Essenes, a semi-ascetic Hebrew group who practiced ritual baptism. 

John the Baptizer had many followers and it appears, from Mark’s Gospel, that Jesus from Nazareth was one of them. We know as well from New Testament accounts that some of Jesus’ early followers had also been followers of John. See for example John 1:36–40. But John the Baptizer says that Jesus is far greater than he: “I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals.” (Mark 1:8) When John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan, a voice from the heavens speaks to Jesus: “You are my son, the Beloved. My favor rests on you.” (Mark 1:11) Note, the Spirit is speaking directly to Jesus. It is his call to public ministry moving far beyond that of John the Baptizer.

Throughout his life, Jesus comes to a gradual realization of who he is: the Human One (“Son of Man”) and Son of God. His disciples come as well to a gradual realization of who he is. Just like people today, who are called to grow in faith, wisdom, and understanding. We grow in our understanding and appreciation. Human life is a big discovery journey.

Mark’s Gospel has no account of either Jesus’ virgin birth or his infancy. The focus is on the adult Jesus as Messiah. The gospel does mention that Jesus had brothers and sisters in Mark 6:3. 

In the fourth century human sexuality became problematic for many Christians, thanks especially to Augustine the North African bishop of Hippo (354 – 430). There is much wisdom in Augustine’s vast array of writings, but his later neoplatonic negativity about human sexuality became very problematic, reflecting images of moral disorder and sinful corruption. Thanks to Augustine, virginity became a higher calling and a Christian life ideal. And so in the fourth century Christian bishops established the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, that she was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. The biblical text in Mark 6:3 about Jesus’ brothers and sisters therefore became problematic. Virginity-oriented church authorities began to explain Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” as either children of Joseph from a previous marriage or actually “cousins” of Jesus.

In Mark 8, the author stresses that the person who wants to be Jesus’ disciple must pick up his or her cross and follow Jesus. People living in Nero’s Rome and post-Nero Rome had a very good understanding of the way of the cross. The first persecution of Christians, organized by the Roman government within the city of Rome, began in 64 CE under Emperor Nero (37 – 68 CE) after the Great Fire of Rome which burned and destroyed two thirds of Rome. Nero laid blame for the fire on the Christian community in Rome. He had Christians arrested, covered with the hides of wild beasts and torn apart by dogs, or them nailed to crosses, or set them on fire. Today historians really suspect that Nero himself had ordered the fire to remake Rome the way he wanted it and to clear space for his new palace, the Domus Aurea, his “Golden House.”

Mark is clearly a gospel of the suffering Messiah and of suffering and fearful discipleship.

In the eighth chapter of Mark, following Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus changes his speaking style. He speaks with a new urgency. He starts to talk about his upcoming death. Peter tries to rebuke him, but Jesus says: “away from me Satan” (Mark 8:33). Mark 8:31–33 is the tipping point of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus now sees his own painful death on the horizon and fears having to experience it. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. A sudden fear comes over him and he is in great distress. Like a loving but fearful child he speaks to his father: “Abba everything is possible for you. Take this cup away from me….” (Mark 14:35-36). Abba is Aramaic for father.

Jesus’ own disciple, Judas, betrayed him. The other disciples abandoned him. People spit on Jesus. He is blindfolded and beaten. Even Peter rejects him three times. (Mark 14:53-65).

Mark’s Gospel also has a rather abrupt ending. Like the other three gospels, Mark does report the visit of Mary the Magdalene and her companions to the tomb of Jesus early Sunday morning. When they arrive at the tomb, however, they find the entrance stone removed and a young man (not an angel) tells them: “’Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:6-8). And there Mark’s Gospel simply ends!

Many scholars today really believe that the Gospel of Mark originally ended with Mark 16:8. Yet some scholars contend there was in fact a lost ending. Already in antiquity editors and copyists, uncomfortable with such an abrupt ending, provided three different endings for the Gospel of Mark to correct the abruptness of 16:8. The most favored of these added endings is Mark 16:9-19, called the Markan Appendix, or the Longer Ending. It records three appearances of Jesus raised from the dead: to Mary the Magdalene, to two disciples, and to the eleven. It mentions Jesus’ ascension into heaven and his sitting at God’s right hand.

Not everything about Mark’s Gospel can be summarized in this week’s reflection. Rereading Mark’s Gospel this past week, however, two thoughts struck me: (1) Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is a rejected and suffering Son of God. (2) Following Jesus is a discipleship of the cross. 

Life is not always easy. Many people still live, as did Mark’s congregation, in fearful and threatening times. Ukraine today and the earthquakes in Turkey are just two current examples in news headlines. Thousands of other sufferers never make the headlines.

Mark’s Gospel is a narrative that was crafted and constructed to engage and encourage people to have faith and hope. Fear and uncertainty, if one allows them to take control, can disable, blind, and paralyze people. But Christianity is not a religion of fear. 

We are challenged to be alert and faithful to the Good News. In Mark 8:18-21 Jesus reprimands his disciples: “Do you not yet understand? Have you no perception? Are your minds closed? Have you eyes that do not see, and ears that do not hear?”

Well our contemporary challenge from the Gospel of Mark is twofold: To keep our minds, eyes, and ears open to the call of the Sacred today. But then to also be a source of faith and hope for the people who are weighed down under fear, uncertainty, and absolute misery.

  • Jack

Early Christians, Paul, Peter, and the Gospels

Most contemporary scholars agree that Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) began his public ministry when he was about thirty years old; and they place the date of his death at Passover time around the year 30 CE. What did Jesus do before his public ministry? We don’t know. We can can only speculate. We know Jesus lived in Nazareth and had brothers and sisters. His mother’s name was Miriam (Mary) and traditionally his father’s name was Joseph. But Joseph, the husband of Mary, is never mentioned by Paul or by Mark the earliest gospel. He is never quoted. He is only mentioned by name in the Nativity of Jesus narratives in Matthew and Luke, and only mentioned in passing in John 1:45 and 6:42 where Jesus is called the “ son of Joseph.”

Some scholars believe that Jesus, like his father, was a first century craftsman. The Greek word so often translated as “carpenter” is tekton, and is more accurately rendered as a craftsman or handyman working with wood and stone. Other scholars theorize that Jesus was a monk and spent years in study and prayer, before entering his public ministerial life. Frankly, I have no pet theory. I am more interested in what Jesus said and did, as reflected in New Testament literature.

If we turn our attention to the New Testament books, the earliest “scriptures” we have are the letters written by Paul the Apostle (c. 5 – c. 64/65 CE) composed in the decade of the 50s CE. Paul’s Hebrew name was “Saul” perhaps after the biblical King Saul, the first king of Israel and like Paul a member of the Tribe of Benjamin. The Latin name Paulus “Paul,” meaning small, was not a result of his Christian conversion, as it is commonly believed, but was a second name for use in communicating with a Greco-Roman audience.

Today we know as well that not all letters attributed to Paul were authored by him. There is general scholarly agreement that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon are genuinely Pauline. Other letters bearing Paul’s name are disputed among scholars, namely Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. Most contemporary biblical scholars agree that Hebrews was certainly not written by Paul. In fact, the emphasis on Melchizedek and priesthood in Hebrews seems out of sync with Pauline theology. (Pope John Paul II, by the way, was very fond of Hebrews.)

And Peter? When we look at the history and biblical testimony about the apostolic community of Christians in Jerusalem, clearly the leader was James, the “brother of the Lord.” Peter played a role at the Council of Jerusalem (c.50 CE). But James was in charge and James issued the definitive judgment that converts to Christianity did not have to be circumcised. Then, according to the Epistle to the Galatians, Peter went to Antioch. There he tangled with Paul, who rebuked him for treating Gentile converts as inferior to Hebraic Christians.

There is a later tradition that Peter and Paul went to Rome and were put to death at the hands of Nero probably between 64 and 68 CE. According to an old legend, Peter was crucified upside down. Other folklore fills out the details of Peter’s life and death in Rome: his struggles with the magician Simon Magus, his miracles, his attempted escape from persecution in Rome, and a flight from which he was turned back by a vision of Christ, the “Quo Vadis” legend. Well, history is based on actual events. Legends may or may not be.

By the second and third centuries, however, we see stories about Peter springing from historical suppositions, legends, and much creative imagination by people like Irenaeus of Lyons (died 202 CE) the influential early bishop in the south of France. 

Contrary to what some think, neither Peter nor Paul brought Christianity to Rome. Before Peter and Paul would have arrived, there were already Christian elders and house churches in Rome. But there was no central administrator. No bishop. At some point Peter may have been one of these elders. We really do not know for certain. 

Most contemporary Catholic and Protestant historians, however, would stress that Peter was NEVER a bishop of Rome. The Roman Catholic theologian priests Raymond Brown and John P. Meier were quite emphatic about this in their book Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Christianity, (Paulist Press 1983): “There is no serious proof that he (Peter) was the bishop, or local ecclesiastical officer, of the Roman church: a claim not made till the third century. Most likely he did not spend any major time at Rome before 58 CE when Paul wrote to the Romans; and so it may have been only in the 60s and relatively shortly before his martyrdom that Peter came to the capital.”

But then what about Peter as “the first pope”? Thanks to Constantine (272 – 337 CE) and the influence of his relics-collecting mother Helena (246/248 – c. 330 CE).         In her final years, Helena made a religious tour of the Palestine region and Jerusalem, during which she discovered what her tour guide said was “the True Cross.” Thanks to her as well, legends about Peter were held in high regard in third and fourth century Rome. 

The first great acclamation of “Peter as a pope,” however, came from Pope Leo I, also known as Saint Leo the Great. Leo was pope from 440 CE until his death in 461 CE. Leo greatly contributed to the development of the doctrine of a papal Petrine succession, based on his personal religious imagination and pious devotion to St. Peter. Interestingly, Pope Benedict XVI said that Leo’s papacy “was undoubtedly one of the most important in the Church’s history.” Like minds?

Today, perhaps, one can understand the popes as successors of Peter in faith, witness, and ministry. It is only with a bit of creative historical imagination, however, that one can really call Peter “the first pope.” Sometimes we need to adjust old understandings based on updated historical research and information.

Four Gospels: After the deaths of James, Peter, and Paul, as well as others who had known Jesus face-to-face, it became essential for the survival of the way of Jesus that his words and deeds be recollected and written down. This led to the birth of the Four Gospels.

The clear majority of contemporary biblical scholars believe that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, sometime around the year 70 CE. This scholarly consensus holds that the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke were composed, independently of one another, sometime in the 80s or 90s. Both used a written form of the Gospel of Mark as source material for their own narratives. In addition, because both Matthew and Luke contain a large amount of material in common that is not found in Mark, most scholars hold that the authors of Matthew and Luke also drew from a collection of Jesus’ sayings that they incorporated into their works. These sayings of Jesus, known as “Q” were most likely assembled in the 40s or 50s. (The “Q” comes from the first letter of “Quelle” the German word for “source”.) This understanding of the origins of the “synoptic” Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke explains why they are similar yet different in details, descriptions, and focus. 

The Gospel of John emerges from an independent literary tradition that is not directly connected to the Synoptic tradition. This accounts for the major differences between John and the Synoptics. The Gospel of John reached its final form around 90 –110 CE.

All four Gospels evolved from oral traditions, passed on from person to person, and from place to place. More than one single person (i.e. Mark, Matthew, Luke, John) composed the final versions of the four Gospels as we have them today. Each time the narrators adapted their accounts to the needs, understanding, and cultural and religious backgrounds of their listeners. The Gospels were not written therefore to give us strict “history.” They are about faith and living in the Spirit of Christ.

The Gospels contain bits of history, parables, metaphor, symbol, re-interpreted passages from the Greek (Septuagint) Hebrew Scriptures, and imagined scenarios for key events in the life of Jesus. We see for instance, in Matthew and Luke, two quite different accounts about Jesus’ infancy. Their focus was not primarily to present an historical narrative, but to affirm and proclaim their theological belief about Jesus the Christ. 

Anchored in Christian faith, the authors of the Gospels – using a variety of literary forms — wanted to pass on to future generations their understanding and belief in and about Jesus Christ. Their words inform, stimulate, and encourage us to grow in our own Christian faith.

During Lent 2023, I would like to share my own reflections on the Gospels, based on my lived experience, ongoing study, and Gospel-reading. I welcome your own reactions and reflections. I subscribe to an historical/critical understanding of Sacred Scripture, because I find it not only helpful but biblically correct and responsible. I am not a literal-interpretation fundamentalist. I am also keenly aware that correct translations of biblical texts are essential for a correct understanding of what the biblical authors were saying. One small example: the Latin word ecclesia or ekklesia in Greek is often translated as “church.” The original biblical meaning of the word however is an “assembly” or a “gathering of people.”

Between now and Easter I would like to revisit the four Gospels and invite you to travel with me – with your New Testament in hand. Yes I realize that I did this about three years ago but many readers, and many new readers, have asked me to do it again. And of course each visit brings new perspectives. We live. We study. We grow in our understandings. (Or we should.) 

  • Jack

Questions About the New Testament and Early Christian Literature

A young university student asked for a clarification about the New Testament and the “Apocrypha.” A classmate had told him that there were many other early  Christian documents, called “Apocrypha,” that should have been included in the New Testament. “So” the student asked me “is this more fake news or is the church hiding something just like they have hidden clerical sexual abuse?” My first reaction was: what a sad commentary on our times. But then I thought it was better to offer a clear explanation – and then in a future discussion to move on to other issues.

The New Testament consists of 27 books, which are a selection out of many 1st and 2nd century CE writings that Christian groups considered sacred. They are called the “New Testament Canon” based on the Greek word kanōn, which literally meant a reed used as a measuring rod and the word therefore came to mean “a standard.”

The process of making the official standard list of New Testament books stretched over a long period. The list of what books should be included differed among the hundreds of Christian communities in antiquity. The criteria for acceptance into the “canon” were: true doctrine, broad acceptance and usage, and apostolicity.

A number of early texts were not considered canonical because they were not connected to the apostolic age or they were local writings without support in many areas. These texts outside the accepted canon of the New Testament make up what we call “apocrypha,” from the Greek word apokryptein meaning “to hide away.” It referred first of all to writings which were to be read privately rather than in the public context of Christian services.

During the time of the definitive formation of the canon in the 2nd  century, apparent differences existed in the Western churches, in close contact with Rome, and those of the East, as in Alexandria and Asia Minor. Athanasius of Alexandria (293 – 373) the Bishop of Alexandria and a powerful and influential theologian definitively listed the New Testament books in the canon in 367 CE and settled the strife between East and West. The 27 books of today’s the New Testament — and they only — were declared canonical. Later councils affirmed this. The Council of Trent of 1545, the embodiment of the Counter-Reformation, reaffirmed the earlier affirmations of the Council of Florence of 1442 and the North African Councils of Hippo and Carthage from 393–419.

So which books did not make the canon? Here are what I suggest are the most interesting books that did not become part of the New Testament.

The Apocalypse of Peter

This 2nd century book was written as a conversation between Jesus and his followers. It basically describes all the horrible things that happen in hell and all the awesome things that happen in heaven. It is very detailed about what punishment fits which crime for those in hell. Those who are blasphemous to God, for example, are hung by their tongue. But those who go to heaven sing beautiful music, have beautiful bodies with great skin, wear shiny clothes, and smell nice.

The Epistle of Barnabas

The Epistle of Barnabas is a book written between 70 and 130 CE. The main message of the Epistle of Barnabas is that the Hebrew scriptures — what would become the “Old Testament” in Christianity — were actually Christian documents from the very beginning. It offers  a completely different interpretation of the Torah that it claims points to the validity of Christianity. 

The Infancy Gospel of James

The book, written in 145 CE  stresses the importance of Mary, the mother of Jesus, to early Christians. It describes her unique birth, her adolescence, and the early years of Jesus life. It stresses Mary’s perpetual virginity and God’s involvement in choosing her husband Joseph. The book describes in detail Herod’s killing of children in Bethlehem, and presents Jesus’ birth, taking place in a cave.

The Shepherd of Hermas

It would have been a very well-known book to the early Christians. It appears to have been very popular in the 2nd  and 3rd  centuries but its popularity had almost entirely died out by the 4th century. 

The Shepard of Hermas was also very controversial at the time. It was used as scripture by some early churches and despised by others. The early Christian scholar Origen (c. 185 – c. 253 CE) quotes it as scripture. But the “founder of Western theology” Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 CE) as well as theologian and philosopher Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 CE) regarded it as heretical. The Shepard of Hermas is an allegorical book written mostly in the first person describing the visions of Hermas, a former slave.

1 Clement

Clement is one of two letters sent to the church in Corinth and attributed to Pope Clement of Rome (c. 35 – 99 CE). It is one of the earliest written books that eventually failed to make it into the New Testament, being dated to around 95 CE. The book itself is mostly focused on a dispute in the Christian community at Corinth about the removal of several leaders, which Clement strongly objected to.

The Gospel of Thomas

One of the most famous books not included in the New Testament is the so called Gospel of Thomas. It is not a book that was passed down through the ages but was rediscovered as part of the Nag Hammadi Library in upper Egypt in 1945. There is no evidence it was widely read by the early Christians and the few existing references refer to it as heretical. The book does not mention the death and resurrection of Jesus but focuses on his teachings and how they lead to eternal life. Scholars have proposed dates of composition as early as 60 CE and as late as 250 CE. 

The Jesus Seminar (a group of scholars, active from 1985 to 2006, to decide their collective view of the historicity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth) asserted that the Gospel of Thomas may have more authentic material than the Gospel of John. They published a book in 1996 titled The Five Gospels, which includes the canonical four plus Thomas. But John Paul Meier (1942 – 2022) the U.S. American biblical scholar and Roman Catholic priest repeatedly argued against the historicity of the Gospel of Thomas, stating that it cannot be a reliable source for the quest of the historical Jesus. 

The U.S. American historian of religion, Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, argues in her book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003), that the Gospel of John was written as a rebuttal to the viewpoints put forth in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. But she insists that the Christian Church would look very different if it had incorporated both texts. Pagels’ best-selling book The Gnostic Gospels (1979) examines the divisions in early Christian communities. It is a provocative and a very worthwhile read.

The Didache

The Didache or “The Lord’s teaching of the twelve apostles” is basically a set of step-by-step instructions for a Christian life. It is dated by modern scholars to the first or (less commonly) second century CE. The first section is on how Christians should apply the commandments of God. The second section deals with the sacraments of Baptism, the Eucharist and with fasting.The third section is about ecclesial structure. The Didache was considered for inclusion in the New Testament by some in the early days of the Christianity.

Third Epistle to the Corinthians

The Third Epistle to the Corinthians is an early Christian text written by an unknown author claiming to be Paul the Apostle, known originally as Saul of Tarsus (c. 5 – c. 64/65 CE). This letter has survived and was included in some early lists of sacred documents, but by the 4th century it was not considered valid. It is considered by most scholars to have been written by someone other than Paul the Apostle. 


In conclusion, I suggest the most important part of this reflection is not just the historical information about early Christian texts but the call of the Gospels to be and to live in the Spirit of the Christ. 

I would, therefore, like to conclude this week’s reflection with two texts from the Fourth Gospel: John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it in all its fullness,” and John 14:19-20: “In a little while the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” 

That is our hope and our challenge.


Christian Humanism

In the Christmas holidays, a somewhat critical reader sent me an email that he was now convinced that I am not really a Christian but just “an old humanist.”

Without getting into a long email discussion, I wrote very simply that I try to live following the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth: “the way, the truth, and the life”  (John 14:6).  I stressed that humanist principles like universal human dignity and individual freedom are essential components of the life and teachings of Jesus. I stressed, therefore, that I am not just “an old humanist” but a Christian humanist. I stressed as well that all genuine believers must be Christian humanists. But I added in a PS that some of today’s most inhumane actors on the human stage, especially political actors, prance around proclaiming Christ as their savior. 

These much in the news actors are good talkers but it stops there. They just talk. They use Jesus’ name in vain. Others claim to be Christian yet prefer to worship him but not to live as he did. 

What is missing in so much of today’s religious and political rhetoric is a focus on living basic moral values: Treating each other with civility and respect. Listening to the other side. Telling the truth. Being honest. Loving neighbors as ourselves. Welcoming the worn out, the lonely, and the downtrodden. And recognizing that all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, have innate dignity and deserve to be treated with kindness, affirmation, and respect. 

Christian humanism stresses that in spite of sorrow, pain, and agony, human life is nevertheless saturated with worth and that truly responsible human action draws together that goodness into a complete vision of life with others and for oneself.

While I would emphasize that the early post-Resurrection followers of Jesus were Christian humanists, the term did not come into widespread use until the fifteenth and sixteenth century Renaissance. The Renaissance Christian humanists who come to mind immediately, for me, are Pico della Mirandola (1463 – 1494), Thomas More (1478 – 1535), and Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536). There were of course many others.

In 1486 Pico della Mirandola wrote the Oration on the Dignity of Man, which has been called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance.” Unfortunately he was condemned as a heretic by Pope Innocent VIII (1432 – 1492) in 1487. His book was banned by the Church, and nearly all copies were burned. At the age of 31, he died of arsenic poisoning most likely because of his friendship with the Dominican friar and Renaissance activist, Girolamo Savonarola (1452 – 1498), so well known for for his clashes with tyrannical rulers and corrupt clergy. By the way, Savonarola preached at Pico’s funeral.

Thomas More’s most famous book was Utopia, published in 1516 in a print shop very close to the city center of Leuven, Belgium, adjacent to University Hall, which has been the main administrative building for the University of Leuven since 1431. Utopia presents an imaginative Christian humanist island where there were free hospitals, priests were allowed to marry, women were allowed to become priests, and divorce was permitted. But slavery and war were also condoned and supported.

When it came to the Protestant Reformation, however, Thomas More directed strong opposition to the theology of Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), Huldrych Zwingli (1484 – 1531), John Calvin (1509 – 1564) , and William Tyndale (1494 – 1536). 

Thomas More opposed, as well, King Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic Church and refused to acknowledge Henry as supreme head of the Church of England. When More refused to take his former friend King Henry’s 1534 Oath of Supremacy, Henry had him beheaded on 6 July 1535. Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) is perhaps the most well known of all England’s monarchs, notably for the fact that he had six wives and beheaded two of them. Henry was also subject to raging mood swings and paranoia. It is estimated that during his 36 years of rule over England Henry had ordered the execution of about 57,000 people, many of whom were either members of the clergy or ordinary citizens and nobles who had taken part in uprisings and protests up and down the country.

Of all the Renaissance humanists, Erasmus is my favorite. Few people these days realize that he was a priest and that his father was a priest. Although his parents were not legally married, his father, Gerard, was a Catholic priest and curate in the Dutch city of Gouda. In1517, Erasmus supported the foundation in Leuven of the Collegium Trilingue (College of Three Languages) for the study of Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Erasmus did not stay in Leuven very long because the local academics and clergy, at that time, opposed his principles of literary interpretation and religious reform.

I have always been delighted to know that Erasmus lived and worked for a few years at the Norbertine “Park Abbey,” founded in 1129 and not far from my back yard. Sometimes, in my historical daydreams, I picture him walking down the nearby street, on his way to town. 

Most importantly, Erasmus embraced the humanistic belief in an individual’s capacity for self-improvement and the fundamental role of education in raising human beings above the level of brute animals. The thrust of Erasmus’ educational focus was the promotion of what he termed the “philosophy of Christ.” As a biblical scholar he supported the call to return to Ad fontes: getting back to primary sources by examining the texts in their original languages. His pioneering edition of the Greek New Testament shows that he had an understanding of the process of textual transmission and had developed text-critical principles. He was developing what today we call “historical criticism.”

In general Erasmus stressed consensus, compromise, and peaceful cooperation. These he recommended to the participants in the Reformation debate, but with little success. In fact Erasmus later broke with Martin Luther. The two men disagreed over an analytical questioning of Scripture and the question of free will, which Erasmus supported.

The circulation of Erasmus’ works was temporarily curtailed when the Catholic Church put them on the Index of Forbidden Books, but his ideas saw a revival during the Enlightenment when he was regarded as a forerunner of rationalism. His most famous work, In Praise of Folly, has remained in print up to the present day. The book, printed in 1511, presents a satirical examination of superstitious and corrupt practices in the Roman Catholic Church. It ends with a straightforward statement about Christian humanist realism: “No man is wise at all times, or is without his blind side.”

Thinking about Christian humanism today, the challenges for us are moving beyond distorted vision – beyond our “blind sides.” The historical Jesus says in John 10:10 “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Genuine Christian humanists must realize that for Jesus and for us “they” means humanity in all variations: all religions, all genders, all races and nationalities. 

Jesus stressed this point in his parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 10:25 – 37).  A traveler is stripped of clothing, beaten, and left half dead alongside the road. First, a Hebrew priest and then a Levite come by. Both avoid the man. Finally, a Samaritan happens upon the traveler. We should remember that in Jesus’ days most Hebrews looked upon the Samaritans with contempt. They were not simply outcasts. They were considered the despised enemies of the Hebrews. But in Jesus’ parable it is the Samaritan who stops and cares for the injured man, taking him to an inn, where the Samaritan pays for his care.

Thinking as well about “they,” I would stress that genuine Christian humanism must also critique and promote healthy religion regardless whether it is Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or any other religion, or philosophy acting like a religion. I have four points for reflection:

  • Healthy religion encourages all people to deal kindly with others, to overcome personal selfishness, and to create just and caring communities. Perverted religion categorizes certain people as evil and unworthy of life.
  • Healthy religion sees religion as a way to support and liberate people. Perverted religion sees religion as a way to use and control and abuse  people.
  • Healthy religion encourages intellectual honesty, questioning, and doubts. Perverted religion condemns the questioner and demands unquestioned loyalty. 
  • And, of course, healthy religion emphasizes love and growth.

 May we be healthy Christian humanists!


An Open Letter from Roman Catholic Women Bishops

(Certainly one of the most hopeful developments in the Roman Catholic Church has been the ordination of women as priests and bishops. This week I am pleased to post this letter, sent to me by my friend Bishop Nancy Louise Meyer. It is dated January 6, 2023. – Jack)

An Open Letter to: the People of God, Pope Francis, Curia Officials, Conferences of Bishops in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia and Oceania

Hope arrived for women in the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Pope John XXIII called the Church to open the doors and windows and to “read the signs of the times”. When Pope Francis recently called for a global synodal process, we, the women bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, dared again to hope that the leadership of the Church would listen and walk with all the People of God. 

In a November interview published in America magazine, Pope Francis attempts to justify the exclusion of women from ordained ministry utilizing the archaic, patriarchal theology that Jesus was a man and he chose men as his apostles, therefore, priests must also be male.  He appealed to the medieval spousal imagery of an active-receptive relationship, in which the Church is the bride and the priest the bridegroom. This disregards the fundamental message of the Gospel and contradicts our baptismal oneness in Christ: “. . . there is no longer male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)  Baptism rests on faith, not on gender, not nationality, nor any other form of discrimination.

In the interview, Francis fails to acknowledge the many times in Scripture where women are chosen by God or Jesus to minister. Mary of Magdala was proclaimed ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ and a host of other women named in Scripture went out to proclaim the Good News in the early church. The argument that maleness is necessary for ordination damages the Church and greater society.  A church subjugating women with their structures supports similar subjugation in the world. In this the Roman Catholic Church violates its own words from the Second Vatican Council which states that, “Forms of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language or religion, must be curbed or eradicated as incompatible with God’s designs.”(Gaudium et Spes 29) Francis’ attempt to justify the exclusion of women from ordination is a failure to “read the signs of the times” and to understand the basic human rights of all members of the Church.

Roman Catholic Women deacons, priests and bishops have answered the call of God and their communities through valid ordination in apostolic succession. We are providing a vibrant experience of community and sacraments where we live. We are not responsible for people leaving the Church, we are bringing people back to the faith. We heal those grievously wounded by physical, emotional and spiritual abuse and exclusion. We offer a model of church easily recognizable as Roman Catholic, but offering transparency of governance, the inclusion of those marginalized, and recognition of gender equality.

We call on Pope Francis and the Conferences of Bishops in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia and Oceania to meet with us, the Roman Catholic Women Bishops serving across the world. Despite his call for dialogue, Pope Francis refuses to engage in authentic conversation with us. Francis can use his Petrine key to unlock that door.

On behalf of Roman Catholic Women deacons, priests and bishops around the world:

+Jane Kryzanowski, Regina, SK, Canada;,

+Martha Sherman, Washington, IA;

+Mary Eileen Collingwood, Cleveland, OH, USA;

+Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, Pettenbach, Austria;

+Jane Via, San Diego, CA, USA;

+Olga Lucia Álvarez Benjumea, Envigado, Colombia

+Jean Marie Marchant, Boston, MA, USA

+Suzanne Avison Thiel, Portland, OR, USA

+Mary Keldermans, Springfield, IL, USA

+Ida Raming, Stuttgart, Germany

+Bridget Mary Meehan, Sarasota, FL, USA

+Marie Evans Bouclin, Sudbury, ON, Canada

+Merlene Olivia Doko, Pismo Beach, CA, USA

+Andrea Michele Johnson, Annapolis, MD, USA

+Sibyl Dana Reynolds, Pebble Beach, CA, USA

+Joan Clark Houk, South Bend, IN, USA

+Patricia Fresen, Johannesburg, South Africa

+Nancy Louise Meyer, Brownsburg, IN, USA

+Dr. Gisela Forster, Berg, Germany

A Reflection about Morality and Same-sex Identity

Last week’s reflection about Joseph Ratzinger, who passed from this life on December 31, 2022,   generated a lot of reaction and questions. One issue that many people commented about was his strong affirmation of Catholic teaching about gender, human sexuality, and specifically the same-sex orientation, traditionally called “homosexuality.”

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “homosexual acts” are “acts of grave depravity” that are “intrinsically disordered….Under no circumstances can they be approved.” Regarding homosexuality as an orientation, the Catechism describes it as “objectively disordered.” The Catechism, as I mentioned last week was drafted by a commission chaired by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992.

Certainly today the scientific and experiential insights available to us clearly indicate that the RCC’s theological tradition can be and must be approached critically, to clarify its foundation, rationale, and continued meaningfulness in the changed socio-historical circumstances of the contemporary world. 

The Bible and Homosexuality

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) turns to the Bible in its discussion of the “problem of homosexuality” and asserts that “there is … a clear consistency within the sacred scriptures for judging the immorality of homosexual behavior.” The texts on which this “clear consistency” is built are: Genesis 19:1-11; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:26-7; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10.

Nevertheless, in the light of contemporary biblical scholarship, it is impossible to agree that the texts on which this Catholic tradition about the immorality of homosexual acts is based are “unambiguous” and provide “solid foundation.” Contemporary theologians would stress that the biblical accounts are complex and socio-historically conditioned literary forms that demand careful historical-critical analysis.

First of all, neither the Bible nor the Christian tradition rooted in it prior to the twentieth century ever really considered the homosexual condition as a specific sexual orientation. They took for granted that everyone was heterosexual. To look for any mention in the biblical texts of what today is called “homosexual orientation” is simply unfounded. One might just as well search the Bible for advice about buying a cellphone or a laptop computer

The context in which both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New testament condemn homosexual acts is shaped by the socio-historical conditions of the times in which they were written, namely that all human beings naturally share the heterosexual condition and that, therefore, any homosexual behavior is a perversion of “nature” and immoral. Because that biblical assumption is now scientifically shown to be incorrect, the Bible has little to contribute to the discussion of genuine homosexuality and homosexuals as we understand them today. In fact, the Bible also contains many questionable moral teachings about sex: the evil of sexual relations during menstruation for example, or about the stoning of adulterers, about women’s role, about slavery, and a host of other issues. All of these issues have been rejected by modern Catholic moral theology as archaic misunderstandings. But homosexuality?

In this reflection, I cannot go into a detailed analysis of all biblical texts touching on homosexuality. For a detailed analysis of the biblical texts I suggest the book: The Sexual Person, Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology, by Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler (Georgetown University Press / Washington, D.C., 2008). It is still an excellent book. I have known and respected Todd for many years, from the time he was a theology student at the Catholic University of Leuven and then completed his doctorate in 1994.

The Catholic tradition also teaches that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered because they are  “contrary to the natural law.”

The Natural Law Argument

In determining contemporary moral values and behavior, a realistic understanding of human life requires an historically conscious worldview, because human reality is dynamic, evolving, and changing. We certainly see this when it comes to medical science. During the 19th century, for example, bloodletting was a very common treatment for basically any ailment you might be suffering from. At the time, doctors believed that too much blood would throw off the balance in your body.

People today laugh at such ignorant foolishness. People, however, do not always apply new human insights to moral moral values. As our human understanding develops and changes, so too do our human concepts, theories, and courses of action. This is not a matter of relativism but of changing human perspectives. There is indeed a human thread from generation to generation that links faith and moral values. People in every age reflect, evaluate, and interpret that faith and moral values tradition in terms of their contemporary culture and understanding.

When people determine moral obligations from “nature,” they are really deriving them from their own human interpretation of “nature.” The challenge with “natural law”and “human nature” is that our understanding of human sexuality – with its biological, emotional, psychological, relational, and spiritual dimensions — has developed historically and it continues to develop. I learned this years ago from my Louvain (Leuven) professor, Louis Janssens (1908 – 2001), founder of the Louvain tradition of personalism. Janssens made an original contribution to the study of the human person through the approach which he coined as “the human person adequately considered.”

Personalist moral philosophers and theologians stress that the old “traditional” biological and strictly physicalist understanding of traditional natural law and human “nature” must be transformed into a contemporary personalist, relational understanding. The former defines the morality of acts based only on the physical, biological structure of those acts. The latter defines the morality of acts based on the meaning of those acts for persons and relationships. Marital sexuality in a personalist relational understanding, for example, is about much more than simply linking genitalia to produce progeny.

The ethical criterion for human choices and actions therefore is the extent to which these choices and actions respect and enhance a person’s living together in time and space, in all the many different dimensions of a person’s life world and life history: familial, social, material, environmental, spiritual, physical, and psychological. This is “the human person adequately considered.”

“Nature” and natural law have always had a prominent place in Catholic moral theology and, in official Church teaching, not only homosexuality but also masturbation, premarital, extramarital, contraceptive, and non-reproductive types of marital sexual activity have been condemned as “contrary to the natural law.”

I would emphasize, however, that every interpretation of “nature” is a socially constructed reality dependent on human perspective and interpretations. The reality of “nature” must  always be subjected to scrutiny, even if the interpretation be advanced by the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Homosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a homosexual orientation, just as heterosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a heterosexual orientation. Period. Sexual acts are moral when they are natural, reasonable, and expressed in a truly human, just, and loving manner. 

The historical Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. He did say “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

(Mark 12:31)


Reflections About Joseph Ratzinger

Dear friends, you have to bear with me this week. Yes I realize this is a much longer post than usual, with a lot of historical information. I do feel a need to share it, at least for an objective and correct historical perspective on the recently deceased former Pope. If you find it too long, you can simply move down to the final paragraph: an observation by the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, SJ in the National Catholic Reporter on December 31, 2022. Thomas Reese is senior analyst at Religion News Service and a former editor-in-chief of the weekly Catholic magazine America.

Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger (16 April 1927 – 31 December 2022) was Pope Benedict XVI from 19 April 2005 until his resignation on 28 February 2013. Since his death, there has been an abundance of articles about him. I would like to share an historical perspective about his theological focus. Nicknamed “God’s Rottweiler,” he remained a hero to many theological conservatives. U.S. Catholics make up about 20 percent of all U.S. adults. The church has grown increasingly polarized in the past few years, and the faction that has opposed Pope Francis’ agenda has been strengthened.

Joseph Ratzinger – later Benedict XVI – has been the inspiration for the conservative far right polarizers. Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings were prolific. He generally defended traditional Catholic doctrine, values, and liturgy, like the old style “Tridentine” Latin Mass. No one was more important in helping Pope
John Paul II – Pope from 1978 until his death in 2005 — turn Catholic Church leadership, especially in the United States, right of center.

On 25 November 1981, Pope John Paul II, appointed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the CDF, formerly known as the “Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office,” the historical Roman Inquisition. Cardinal Ratzinger was head of the CDF from 1981 until 2005, when he became Pope Benedict XVI on 19 April. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s pronouncements as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
mark for posterity his theological positions.

As an historian, I have collected a summary of his major
condemnations of contemporary theology and theologians. They offer important perspectives on the theology of Pope Benedict XVI.

(1) October 4, 1983: Notification to Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of Seattle, Washington that an apostolic visitation of his archdiocese would be conducted, focused primarily on liturgy, the education of seminarians, clergy formation, the
marriage tribunal, and ministry to homosexuals. (The process ended with the
appointment in 1985 of an auxiliary bishop, Donald Wuerl, later archbishop of Washington. He was controversially named an auxiliary bishop and given primary responsibility over many areas of archdiocesan governance.)

(2) August 6, 1984: “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of
Liberation.’” Although applauding efforts to promote social justice, it criticized
theologians who borrow “uncritically” from Marxist ideology, reducing salvation to the liberation of the poor from worldly oppressors.

(3) March 11, 1985: Notification on the book Church: Charism and Power by
Brazilian Franciscan Father Leonardo Boff, who argued that the church’s current
hierarchical structure was not that intended by Christ and that authority can
spring from the community of the faithful. The notification said the book was
“dangerous” and Father Boff was ordered to refrain from publishing or speaking publicly for one year.

(4) March 22, 1986: “Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation,” a
second document on liberation theology providing guidelines for the theology’s
development, insisting that it have as its goal the liberation of people from sin, not
simply from sinful social structures.

(5) July 10, 1986: Pope John Paul II appointed Cardinal Ratzinger head of a
12-member commission charged with drafting the Catechism of the Catholic
Church. The text was released in French in 1992 and in English in 1994.
The Catechism strongly reflects and supports a pre-Vatican II theology.

(6) July 25, 1986: The suspension of U.S. Father Charles E. Curran from teaching Catholic theology because of his dissenting views on several issues in sexual ethics. The Vatican declared that Curran could no longer teach theology at the Catholic University of America and that he was neither suitable nor eligible to be a professor of Catholic theology. Father Curran later was given a full tenured professorship at Southern Methodist University and has published personal accounts about his
experience with the Catholic Church and his viewpoint on the actions of Catholic Church authorities.

(7) September 15, 1986: Notification about dangers in the book The Church With a Human Face: A New and Expanded Theology of Ministry by Dominican Father Edward Schillebeeckx. The notification warned that the book was “in disagreement with the teaching of the church,” particularly regarding ordination and the possibility of lay people presiding at the Eucharist. However, the doctrinal congregation did not apply any penalties to the Belgian-born priest, because he had already retired
from teaching. Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009) became my theological mentor in 1968, when he was my professor in Nijmegen.

(8) October 1, 1986: “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the
Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.” The letter called for “special concern and
pastoral attention” to homosexuals, but also for clarity that homosexual activity
is fundamentally immoral.

(9) February 22, 1987: “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and
on the Dignity of Procreation,” clarifying the church’s position on assisted
fertilization techniques and other biomedical issues, reaffirming teaching that
an embryo is human from the moment of conception and that conception is moral
only in the context of traditional sexual intercourse within marriage.

(10) February 16, 1989: Notification regarding the moral rule of “Humanae Vitae” and
pastoral duty, saying couples who find it difficult to follow church teaching about
birth control “deserve great respect and love,” but the church is firm in teaching that contraception is an “intrinsically disordered act” that is prohibited without exception.

(11) October 15, 1989: “Letter on Certain Aspects of Christian Meditation,”
cautioning Catholics about using Buddhist, Hindu and other meditation techniques
that place the focus of prayer on the self rather than on God.

(12) May 24, 1990: “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,”
underlining the important role theologians have in clarifying, explaining and
exploring church teaching, but also calling on theologians who disagree with
church teaching not to use the mass media to publicize their views or try to pressure for change in the church.

(13) January 31, 1992: Notification on the book The Sexual Creators, an Ethical Proposal for Concerned Christians by Canadian Oblate Father Andre Guindon. The
Vatican said the book presented questionable views on premarital sex, homosexual
relationships and contraception.

(14) March 30, 1992: “Instruction on Some Aspects of the Use of the
Instruments of Social Communication in Promoting the Doctrine of the Faith,” reaffirming church law requiring prepublication theological review and approval of manuscripts dealing with church teaching.

(15) May 28, 1992: “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some
Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion,” emphasizing the essential bond
between the local church and universal church, particularly through recognition of
the authority of the pope.

(16) July 23, 1992: “Some Considerations Concerning the Response to
Legislative Proposals on Nondiscrimination of Homosexual Persons,” saying, “It is not unjust discrimination to take sexual orientation into account” when making laws
concerning “adoption or foster care, in employment of teachers or athletic
coaches, and in military recruitment.”

(17) September 14, 1994: “Letter to Bishops Regarding the Reception of Holy
Communion by Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful,” saying the church
cannot ignore Jesus’ clear teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and
reaffirming that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics may not receive Communion.

(18) October 28, 1995: Response to questions about the doctrine contained in the
apostolic letter, “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” saying the church’s teaching that
women cannot be ordained priests belongs “to the deposit of faith” and has
been taught “infallibly” by Pope John Paul II.

(19) January 2, 1997: Notification on the book Mary and Human Liberation by Sri
Lankan Oblate Father Tissa Balasuriya, saying the book contained heretical
statements regarding Mary, original sin, Christ’s redemptive role, and papal
infallibility. The Oblate was excommunicated, but reconciled with the church a
year later.

(20) May 30, 1997: Revised “Regulations for Doctrinal Examination” of
theologians and their work, encouraging a more direct role for the theologian’s bishop or religious superior, allowing the possibility of naming an advocate and an
adviser for the theologian, and permitting face-to-face meetings between the
theologian and congregation members.

(21) August 15, 1997: Publication of the final Latin “typical edition” of the
Catechism of the Catholic Church, containing some corrections and additions to
the 1992 text, including an acknowledgment that science has not determined the cause of homosexuality.

(22) June 24, 1998: Posthumous notification concerning the writings of Indian
Jesuit Father Anthony De Mello, saying some of the priest’s views “are
incompatible with the Catholic faith and can cause grave harm.” It particularly cited
those views presenting God as an impersonal cosmic reality, organized
religion as an obstacle to self-awareness and Jesus as one master among many.

(23) October 31, 1998: “Considerations on ‘The Primacy of the Successor of Peter
in the Mystery of the Church,’” saying that, although Pope John Paul called
for an ecumenical discussion of how primacy could be exercised in a united
church, “the full communion desired by Christ among those who confess to be his
disciples requires the common recognition of a universal ecclesial ministry,” and
the Catholic faith holds that that ministry belongs to the Pope.

(24) May 31, 1999: Notification regarding School Sister of Notre Dame Jeannine
Gramick and Salvatorian Father Robert Nugent, barring the U.S. team from
further pastoral ministry to homosexuals, saying they advanced “doctrinally
unacceptable” positions “regarding the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts and the
objective disorder of the homosexual inclination.”

(25) June 26, 2000: Publication of a 43-page booklet containing the complete
“Message of Fatima,” including the so-called “third secret” given to three
Portuguese children in 1917. In his commentary, Cardinal Ratzinger said the third
part of the message is a symbolic prophecy of the church’s 20th-century
struggles with evil political systems and of the church’s ultimate triumph.

(26) August 6, 2000: Dominus Iesus, a declaration on the “exclusive, universal
and absolute” value of Jesus Christ and his church for salvation.

(27) September 14, 2000: “Instruction on Prayers for Healing,” noting the
importance of believing that God wants to free people from suffering, but encouraging local bishops to be vigilant that the services do not become occasions for hysteria or focus more on the so-called gift of healing possessed by certain
individuals than on God.

(28) January 24, 2001: Notification on the book Toward a Christian Theology of
Religious Pluralism by Belgian Jesuit Father Jacques Dupuis, warning that
although Father Dupuis’ intentions were good his 1997 book contained ambiguous statements and insufficient explanations that could lead readers to “erroneous or
harmful conclusions” about Christ’s role as the unique and universal savior.

(29) February 22, 2001: Notification regarding certain writings of Redemptorist
Father Marciano Vidal, a Spanish moral theologian. At the congregation’s
request, the priest agreed to revise several of his books to emphasize the church’s
official position on contraception, homosexuality, masturbation, abortion and
other issues.

(30) May 18, 2001: Letter to all bishops “regarding the more serious offenses,
‘graviora delicta’ reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith.” The letter said Pope John Paul had given the congregation juridical control
over cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests, classifying it as one of
several “graver offenses” against church law. The other offenses include acts
committed by priests against the sanctity of the Eucharist and against the
sacrament of penance.

(31) August 5, 2002: Publication of the declaration of the excommunication of
seven Catholic women from various countries who had “attempted” to be ordained
Catholic priests. The congregation had sent them a warning July 10 asking them to
indicate their “repentance for the most serious offense they had committed.”
The Vatican said the ordaining bishop had already been excommunicated.

(32) January 16, 2003: Doctrinal note on the participation of Catholics in
political life saying that while Catholics are free to choose among political
parties and strategies for promoting the common good, they cannot claim that freedom allows them to support abortion, euthanasia, or other attacks on human life.

(33) February 7-14, 2003: Revised norms issued for dealing with “serious offenses”
against the sacraments; the new norms included an expedited process for
laicizing priests guilty of sexually abusing minors.

(34) July 31, 2003: “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal
Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons,” reaffirming church teaching
requiring compassion for homosexuals, but saying legal recognition of gay unions is
contrary to human nature and ultimately harmful to society.

(35) July 31, 2004: “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the
Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World,” saying the
subjugation of women is the result of original sin and not of God’s original design
for creation. Rather than ignore the God-given differences between men and
women, the church calls on them to collaborate for the good of the family, society
and the church.

(36) December 13, 2004: Notification regarding the book Jesus Symbol of God by
U.S. Jesuit Father Roger Haight, which said the book contained “serious
doctrinal errors against the Catholic and divine faith of the church,” particularly
regarding the divinity of Jesus and the universality of salvation in him. The Jesuit was forbidden to teach as a Catholic theologian.

(37) February 11, 2005: Statement and commentary reaffirming church teaching that
only priests can administer the anointing of the sick and saying the doctrine
must be “definitively” accepted by Catholics.


As Thomas Reese S.J. wrote in the National Catholic Reporter on December 31, 2022: “What matters is that after the Second Vatican Council open discussion was suppressed by Ratzinger under the papacy of John Paul. If you did not agree with the Vatican, you were silenced. Yet, without open conversation, theology cannot develop, and reforms cannot be made. Without open debate, the church cannot find ways of preaching the gospel in ways understandable to people of the 21st


And so…we do move forward with knowledge of the past and hope for tomorrow.


Contemporary Theology – Not Old Stones

Some may have already heard this little story. Starting the new year, however, I wish to repeat it once again. 

Many years ago, one of my wife’s uncles approached me during a family reunion. He said he needed to draw on my expertise. He then pulled from his pocket a small reddish stone and said: “what do you make of this?” I looked at it and said: “very colorful.” He frowned and said: “but what is your professional interpretation?” I told him I had no idea about it. Very disappointed, he grumbled something and then said: “they told me your field of expertise was geology.” I chuckled and said: “not GEology but THEology.” 

I am an historical theologian. Theology should focus on life-nourishing belief not old doctrinaire stones.

The best definition of THEOLOGY is still that of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109): Fides quarens intellectum – “Faith seeking understanding.” 

When people do theology, they reflect in depth about Reality and their Faith experiences: experiences of being touched by God, even for people for whom the word “God” may be problematic. I remember the words of Dag Hammarskjöld (1905 – 1961) in his book Markings: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” 

When we do theology, we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words, and rituals that are products of our culture. In fact, all of our concepts and experiential interpretations are shaped and influenced to a great extent by the culture and the language out of which they emerge. 

In every age, theologians should strive to better articulate the human experience of the Divine for contemporary believers. I hope I can make at least a small contribution to that.

I shared the story of my wife’s uncle and his stone with an adult discussion group, which I moderate. One lady in the group, a retired professor of sociology at our university, then asked: “ok…but in these days of alt-truth, how do we distinguish healthy and unhealthy theological developments?”  

A very good question, because some theology does indeed appear unhealthy — more like a collection of old stones. 

Healthy contemporary theology should speak to contemporary people in contemporary language. It should help them discover the signs of Divine presence in human life and promote a morality of interpersonal respect, compassion, and solidarity. Jesus taught and lived the truth that love of God cannot exist without love of neighbor. 

I suggest five points for evaluating theology, regardless whether it comes from episcopal lips, from the local church pulpit, or from the keyboard of an older theologian. 

1-The aim of theology cannot be a kind of nostalgic retreat to recover a lost mode of being in the worldthe “good old days.” We need contemporary fresh air. Pope John XXIII when he opened the Second Vatican Council said it was time to “open the windows and let in the fresh air.” Some archconservative contemporary church leaders want to slam them shut and retreat into an earlier closed environment. They forget that the good old days were really not always that great. 

Nevertheless, we really cannot turn-back the clock. We should not even try. It would mean becoming a religious child again and thereby abandoning our adult capacity to think and make one’s own judgments, based on critical reflection and developmental human understanding. The current upsurge of populist fundamentalism – with its appeal for “the good old days” — is not just annoyingly offensive. It is dangerously subversive and destructive. We must live today where we are planted.

2-Theological thinking today needs to reflect on the “call” of the Sacred (the Faith experienceby interpreting and thereby re-creating the meaning and power of religious language. The Sacred has not abandoned us, but we may need to better attune our awareness. There are many Catholics and other Christians today who are no longer comfortable in a church that does not speak to them. Nevertheless, many have indeed felt the presence of the Divine in their lives but do not have a language to express it. They speak about experiencing the “unbelievable,” or the “indescribable,” or their own sense of awe. 

A few years ago, I began this blog to encourage people to think and speak with “another voice.” The truly contemporary theological thinker must have one foot anchored in the present and the other in the tradition of the past: maintaining a dynamic tension between contemporary religious exploration and consciousness and earlier religious consciousness. We explore and we grow. I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:12: “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”

3-When we do theology – when we reflect in depth about our Faith experiences – we necessarily express ourselves in the symbols, words,  and rituals that are products of our culture. But we also look for resonance and dialogue with tradition: with the theological expressions of earlier cultures. I often tell people in my lectures that I am not a far-out anti-historical liberal but a Christian traditionalist. Most people start laughing and then I do have to explain…It is living and believing today but with interpretation and resonance with earlier understandings.

4-Authentic and life-giving theology can never be self-serving narcissismthe expression of individual, subjective experience. Theology is the result of deep reflection about my Faith experience AND your Faith experience AND the Faith experience of the community of Faith. Today as well as Yesterday. Yesterday’s theology invites critical reflection and becomes a heritage, a tradition that finds an expression in historical doctrine, scripture, symbol, ritual, and patterns of conduct. 

5-Theology therefore relies on culture but can never become locked within a particular culture. It cannot, for example, venerate just ancient or medieval European culture. Jesus, for example, was not a fair-skinned European male.

All cultures perceive reality through their own particular lenses. These lenses are shaped and adjusted by shared human events and the great movements in human history. When a theology becomes so locked within a particular culture that it is hardly distinguishable from it, we are on the road to idolatry. Then the words, symbols and rituals of a particular culture no longer communicate and connect people to the depth of the human experience but become hardened old stones and become objects of worship in themselves.

My warmest regards as we move into 2023. I look forward to traveling with you.