Saturday, November 18, 2017

Bible in a Year: Luke

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week I’ve been studying Luke. Luke is likely the only Gentile author among the New Testament writers. He wrote this book and Acts to someone named Theophilus (“lover of God”) in order to provide an account of Jesus’ life  and of the early church. But is Theophilus a particular person, or anyone who loves God?

As I wrote a few posts ago, a favorite book from my college religion courses was Gospel Parallels, which lays out the Synoptic Gospels—Mathew, Mark, and Luke—in order to show textual similarities and differences. Over 90% of Mark’s gospel is also found in Matthew and Luke, and the latter two gospels have material in common that is not found in Mark: the so-called “Q” material (likely meaning “Quelle,” the German word for “source”). Matthew and Luke also have material unique to their own gospels, implying other sources that they used. Unfortunately, we do not know what sources Luke used for the first fifteen chapters of Acts (that is, up to the point where Luke himself subtly and personally joins the story).

(Here is a site, based on another book, that provides the parallels of texts among the three Synoptics:

While Matthew gives us the Wise Men and Herod’s murderous rage and the flight to Egypt, Luke gives us “the rest” of the Christmas story: the stories of John the Baptist and his family, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the Magnificat, the Benedictus, the journey to Bethlehem and the manger, the shepherds, the angels.  We also have Jesus’ circumcision, his presentation at the Temple, and the praise of Simeon and Anna. The only canonical story from Jesus’ growing-up years is found in Luke: the accidental abandonment at the Temple. Thankfully we have a positive story of the Jewish teachers at the Temple: not only did they enjoy his company but they also must have fed him and tucked him into bed at night for three days. Luke genealogy is different from Matthew’s.

There are several passages—-some of them quite beloved—that are unique to Luke’s gospel: Jesus’ first rejection at Nazareth, the stories of Mary and Martha, Zacchaeus, the widow’s son, the Walk to Emmaus, the brief story of the widow and her small contribution, the saying about the narrow door, and also the parables of the rich fool, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the friend at midnight, the Pharisee and the tax collector in contrasting prayer, and others. Little wonder that Luke is a favorite among the gospels for many people, including myself. While in Dublin several years ago, I purchased a pewter goblet featuring Luke's symbol, the ox.

Here is a good outline of Luke’s gospel: In his book The Writings of the New Testament, Luke Johnson points out that Luke together with Acts occupied about a fourth of the entire New Testament in terms of chapters—though the writing style is not verbose and is a high quality Greek.

Analogous to 1 Chronicles, Luke-Acts actually begins with Adam (in the genealogy of Jesus) and through the abbreviation of genealogy gives us a vision from the beginning of biblical history to Luke’s own time, when the apostle Paul was still alive and preaching. The narrative itself covers about sixty years.

Luke’s gospel lacks the darkness and irony of Mark and also the xenophobia of Matthew (Johnson, p. 202). The Romans and other Gentiles are not portrayed so negatively, and neither are Jews (although the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes are, as usual, criticized by Jesus). Luke’s gospel seems to depict Christians as no political threat to Rome, and to depict Jesus’ life, teachings, suffering, and death as part of Israel’s history and consistent with the Hebrew scriptures (Johnson, pp. 202-203). But Luke-Acts also offer to Jewish contemporaries a chance to follow Jesus, and when many do not, Gentiles acceptably become part of the new community.

In her book The Reluctant Parting, Julie Galambush points out that Luke’s theology of the fulfillment of scripture (and Matthew’s, too) has given Gentile Christians assurance of being part of God’s promises to Israel—and, in fact, the authentic kind of Judaism, to the exclusion of the broader community of Jews. Again, we are dealing with Christianity not as a major religion that looks disdainfully at its parent religion, but as a tiny sect that considers itself still Jewish and compares itself to other Jews. In her interest in showing how early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism went their separate ways, Galambush notes Luke’s gospel has been a popular source of religious validation for Gentile Christians, as well as for messianic Jewish movements (which, she points out, are not considered religiously Jewish by the larger Jewish community) (pp. 90-91).

One characteristic of Luke’s gospel is his concern for the poor (see, for instance, 6:3-4, 6:20-25, 16:22, 18:22, 21:1-3). In my study book, What’s in the Bible about Life Together? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), I reflected on Luke 6:20-25:

“If you feel disdain for poor people, avoid Luke’s Gospel. one of Luke’s themes is the blessedness of the poor, to just ‘the poor in spirit’ (Matthew 5:3). The gospel is good news preached to the poor (Luke 1:52-53; 4:1-19)… God has special love for the por. When the kingdom of God comes, the poor will be redeemed, given pride and joy. The hungry will have food; the sorrowful will find happiness.

“What about the rich? According to Jesus, the tables will turn on them in the Kingdom if wealth is at the center of their lives and concern or the poor is lacking… A lack of money is a terrible source of heartache and worry… It’s tough to hang on to God’s promises when you’re choosing between paying for your medicine and buying food or when you made a financial decision that seemed sensible but now is failing. An abundance of money is a source of heartache, too, because in times of prosperity, we still worry… (p. 39). Luke gives those of us who are financially better-off to consider our uses of money and the devotions of our hearts.

(I'll return to these informal studies in a few weeks, after I delve into several books of Bible scholarship that I purchased this week at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting.)   

Monday, November 6, 2017

Bible in a Year: Mark

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week I’m studying Mark. Back in the fall of 1981, I was a grad assistant for a lecture course on Mark at Albertus Magnus College, a women’s college at the time. The margins of my old Bible are filled with interesting insights that the professor offered during that course.

I had not thought of Mark, for instance, as a rather “dark” gospel. The story is framed by two declarations of Jesus as the (or a) Son of God, the first verse, and … the regretful declaration of the centurion who watched Jesus die (15:39). If you knew nothing about Jesus, you might ask, What kind of “good news” (1:1) is this?

Furthermore, Jesus’ identity is a matter of some mystery. Very early in the account, the powers that be want to destroy him (3:6), and his own friends and family consistently fail to understand him. Those who are on the “outside” (the demon-possessed, other Gentiles like that Roman soldier) do understand him. Some would like to proclaim Jesus, but he tells them to stay quiet (3:12), reflecting a theme of what scholars have called “the Messianic secret” in Mark (1:25, 34, 44, 3:12, 5:19, 43, 7:36, 8:30, 9:9, 16:7). Nearly from the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus creates misunderstanding and confusion.

At the end, Jesus’ own followers let him down. “And they all forsook him, and fled,” reads 15:50. (During that 1981 class, I wrote in the margin, “Now they understand!” That is, they realized that following Jesus would indeed involve suffering and possibly death, and at this stage they fled such a prospect.) Like the other gospels, Jesus’ women friends and relatives are most loyal to him (15:40). But the gospel ends with them, too, running away in fear (16:8). The somewhat abrupt beginning of Mark is framed with an abrupt ending.

Of course, we know now that the risen Jesus did appear to his followers and friends, male and female, and they gained new faith and courage. But if you just read Mark “cold” for the first time, you might scratch your head at the gospel’s sadness and irony. In her book The Reluctant Parting, Julie Galambush suggests that Mark's community may have been in a crisis situation during the dark times of the revolt against Rome in 67-73 CE.

As I wrote a few posts ago, a favorite book from my college religion courses was Gospel Parallels, which lays out the Synoptic Gospels—Mathew, Mark, and Luke—in order to show textual similarities and differences. Over 90% of Mark’s gospel is also found in Matthew and Luke, and the latter two gospels have material in common that is not found in Mark: the so-called “Q” material (likely meaning “Quelle,” the German word for “source”). Matthew and Luke also have material unique to their own gospels, implying other sources that they used.

A basic outline of Mark:

The beginning of Jesus’ story, John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, and the wilderness temptation (1:1-13). There are no “Christmas stories” here.

Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (1:14-9:50)
Jesus’ miracles of healing
His teaching about the Sabbath, fasting, his true kindred
His parables (chapter 5)
Other miracles like the thousands fed, the walk upon the sea, the healing of the Gentile woman’s daughter, and others
The Transfiguration, and Jesus’ teachings about his death and resurrection

Jesus and his group journey to Jerusalem (10:1-52)

Jesus’ final week (11:1-16:8)
The Palm Sunday entry
The cursed fig tree
The temple incident
Disputes with Sadducees and Pharisees
The Apocalyptic Discourse
The Last Supper and Gethsemane
Jesus’ arrest, trial, execution, death, and resurrection

A later addition to Mark’s gospel, including extra teaching to the disciples by the risen Jesus (16:9-20)

In his Writings of the New Testament, Luke T. Johnson points out that we don’t really know Mark’s identity's community, and the reasons why he wrote (p. 148). While we an figure out that Mark was the major source for Matthew and Luke, we don’t know Mark’s sources (p. 149). My old Harper’s Study Bible suggests the traditional idea that Peter the disciple who informed Mark, and that Mark may have been the young man strangely referred to in 14:50-51.

Johnson (I keep wanting to call him “Luke,” because that’s what all of us students of his call him) notes that Mark has an triadic “architectonic principle”: things appear in threes, like the three seed parables (4:3-32), three sets of public opinion (6:14-15, 8:27-28), three predictions of Jesus’ suffering (8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34), and of course Peter’s three details (14:66-72) (p. 151).

Johnson discusses several aspects of Mark’s structure (pp. 151-153). But one very key turning point is the declaration of Jesus’ identity by Peter (8:27-30), followed by the Transfiguration (9:1-7). At this point in the story, the assurance that Jesus is the Son of God connects with the opening verse, the centurion’s realization, and also Jesus’ own declaration in 14:62 (pp. 152-153).

The original ending of Mark seems to be 16:8, attested to by the earliest manuscripts. The longer ending of 16:9-20 does give us a famous verse about snake-handling.

I like Johnson’s ideas about Mark’s gospel: “Mark’s readers would naturally, as we still do, identify themselves with the disciples. Mark therefore uses that relationship to teach his readers. The message is mainly one of warning against smugness and self-assurance. He seems to be saying ‘If you think you are an insider, you may not be; if you think you understand the mystery of the kingdom and even control it, watch out; it remains alive and fearful beyond your comprehension. If you think discipleship consists in power because of the presence of God, beware; you are called to follow the one who suffered and died. Your discipleship is defined by his messiahship, in terms of obedience and service’” (p. 158).

A wonderful, always timely warning and reminder.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Bible in a Year: Matthew

Caravaggio, "The Calling of Saint Matthew"
This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This weekend I'm studying Matthew. As I wrote a few posts ago, a favorite book from my college religion courses was Burton Throckmorton's Gospel Parallels, which lays out the Synoptic Gospels—Mathew, Mark, and Luke—in order to show textual similarities and differences. Over 90% of Mark’s gospel is also found in Matthew and Luke, and the latter two gospels have material in common that is not found in Mark: the so-called “Q” material (likely meaning “Quelle,” the German word for “source”). Matthew and Luke also have material unique to their own gospels, implying other sources that they used.

(Here is a site, based on another book, that provides the parallels of texts among the three Synoptics:

If you’re reading the Old Testament through to the New, Matthew’s gospel provides a segue by starting with a genealogy back to Abraham, reminding us of the genealogies of Genesis and 1 Chronicles, as well as the census material in the Torah. Matthew’s genealogy does omit some generations, but also likes Jesus to the tribe of Judah through the families of David, the Davidic kings of the southern kingdom through the deportation to Babylon and the post-exilic period.

Matthew gives us half of what I think of as the “total” Christmas story: the Magi from the east, Herod’s murderous rage and Joseph and Mary’s escape with their son to Egypt, reminding us of the birth narrative of Moses. The linkage of Jesus with the Emmanuel prophecy (Isaiah 7:14) announces God's presence among the people in Jesus, which continues across the gospel (18:20, 25:34-45, 28:20).

We’ve no accounts of Jesus’ childhood or young adulthood until he presents himself for baptism to John the Baptist, connected to Second Isaiah’s exilic declarations of hope and promise (Isa. 40:3). As with many heroes in religion and mythology, Jesus undergoes a time of testing before he begins the main journey of his life (chapter 4). Jesus dwelled in Capernaum, a mix of Jewish and Gentile heritage as reflected in Isaiah’s words (4:15-16). Gathering disciples and crowds, he taught on the side of the mountain (Chaps. 5-7), and continued to teach while also performing miracles of care and healing (chaps. 8-9). Needless to say, the mountain setting of Jesus' sermon, along with Jesus' teachings of Torah and faithfulness, give us a very Moses-like image.

Matthew arranges Jesus’ teachings in five discourses (chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25), and uniquely gives us teachings such as the wicked slave (18:21-35), the landowner (20:1-18), the ten virgins (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the narrative of the last judgment (25:1-46). Although Mark contains no birth narratives, Matthew otherwise retains Mark’s basic geographical framework (the Galilean ministry, chapters 4-18; the journey to Jerusalem, 19-20; and the week in Jerusalem, 21-28:15). Jesus' teachings are filled with Jewish themes of lovingkindness, mercy, prayer, faithfulness to God, God's radical faithfulness to his people, the idea of having a minyan (quorum) for prayer, and others. In announcing the kingdom of heaven, Jesus signals a coming fulfillment of God's promises, as do people's identification of him as the prophet promised by Moses and/or the Son of David. Jesus himself prefers the name Son of Man (ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου) that reminds us of Daniel's apocalyptic passages. But Jesus also links these themes to his own person, sometimes cryptically.

Here are ways that Matthew frames the material:

10: The meanings of servanthood and discipleship

11-12: Implications of Jesus’ own servanthood

13: Parables of the kingdom

14-17: Jesus’ own signs of the kingdom, e.g., the miraculous feedings, Peter’s confession, the Transfiguration, and others. 

18: Teachings on humility and the community (ekklesia)

19-23: Jesus’ humble entry into Jerusalem and the controversies (his anger at the Temple moneychangers, his anger at the Pharisees, his anger at the fig tree, parables of his approaching death

24-25: The Olivet Discourse on sufferings of the end of the age, and the coming of the Son of man.

26-27: The trial and execution of the Son of man. 

28: Jesus’ resurrection and Great Commission.

In his Writings of the New Testament, Luke T. Johnson considers Matthew as instruction for a community trying to distinguish itself from the Pharisaic tradition in the Judaism of that time. Jesus becomes not only the authoritative interpreter of Torah but also the fulfillment and personification of Torah (pp. 183-190). This is not a rejection of Torah, however (p. 185) but a call to understand Torah via Jesus. Helpfully, Johnson calls the Sermon on the Mount “a sketch, not a system” for interpreting Torah (p. 188). Being a disciple (student) of Jesus will require ongoing study, prayer, and service.

Helpfully, too, Johnson compares the personification of Jesus as Torah to something already done in Scripture: the personification of Torah as Sophia (Wisdom) in Proverbs and the Wisdom of Solomon, not to mention the Mishnah’s Haggadic traditions (p. 189).

In Matthew, Jesus addresses his mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). It seems the most Jewish Gospel but also the most angry in terms of the Jewish leadership. We get Jesus’ bitter diatribe in Matthew 23, but we also get strong connections of Jesus with the Jewish scriptures and traditions. Jesus by no means repudiates the Torah, but interprets it by his own authority. At the same time, Jesus provides hope for Gentiles, too (12:18, 15:28, 24:14, etc.), and among the gospels only Matthew uses the word “church” (ekklēsia).Yet (likely reflecting tensions within Matthew’s community) the Gospel is also a little hostile toward Gentiles, for Jesus frequently criticizes or makes light of the practices of non-Jews (Johnson, p. 191).

Matthew’s desire to distinguish his community of Jesus-following Jews from the Jewish leadership of his (rather than Jesus’) time, had far-reaching results. In her book The Reluctant Parting, Julie Galambush discusses the bitterness of Jesus’ and Matthew’s language toward Pharisees and other leaders (e.g., pp. 72-77). For instance, the seven “woes” of chapter 23 “is disturbing in its rancor and has long provided fodder to those seeking proof that Jews are legalistic, hypocritical, and self-serving” (p. 73). But this and other bitter passages reflect heightened tensions between Jesus’ followers an the Pharisees in Matthew’s period, not Jesus’. But the prophecy of the temple’s demise—an event that had taken place within the reader’s memory—serve to underscore Jesus’ credibility in the debate” (p. 74).

Tragically, Matthew’s gospel has provided generations of Christians with material to become anti-Jewish or antisemitic— as well as to feel self-righteous and persecuted whenever someone disagrees with them. Galambush continues, “Read through the lens of Christianity’s triumph over the entire Western world, Matthew’s predictions [of persecution of Jesus-followers by Jews] appear grandiose and self-serving. Anything Christians suffer is proof of their righteousness and a produce to eternal exaltation over everything and everyone else. Such a reading... ignores the reality of Matthew’s original social and historical setting” (p. 74). So we must not accept Matthew’s portrayal of the Pharisees as “self-serving religious bullies” but understand, instead, that Matthew was a leader who trying to maintain the community in an embattled time when its future was very unclear (p. 74). (Think of the way you think about the rival sports team of you own favorite team.) During the last third of the first century, Pharisees themselves were struggling, too, hoping to save an embattled and persecuted Judaism.

While keeping in mind Matthew's reasons for his more bitter passages (and repenting if we have our own prejudices toward Jews), we also turn to this gospel for rich teaching. Luke Johnson (who also discusses Matthew’s characterization of Jews) notes that Matthew contains more homiletical material than Mark: Matthew is “broadly catechetical” for his community because it contains instructions for the community about piety, church discipline, and instructions for missionaries (p. 176).

Matthew also connects to Judaism in positive ways, as I noted above: for instance, he makes over seventy references to the Scriptures, fewer than Mark. Like the other gospel writers, he recognizes that the suffering and death of the Messiah was not an expected outcome---and yet it was, if one mines the rich Scriptures about Jewish suffering and hope and understands therein predictions and patterns of Jesus' own experience.  (See my list here.)

Another, more subtle connection to the scriptural heritage (and another reason not to be anti-Jewish), is the way the gospel describes human failure in the face of God's wonderful works, just as the Old Testament does. This is something we'll see throughout the New Testament. Remember how the Israelites failed again and again as they traveled through Wilderness? If the Pharisees and others didn't "get" Jesus, Jesus' own followers failed to "get" him, too, missing the point of his teachings, disappointing him in his darkest hour---and, of course, Judas sold him out and Peter denied him. (Peter doesn't get rehabilitated in this Gospel, although it's surely assumed.) Mark's gospel is even darker in this regard. The Bible is very truthful about God's nature and human nature alike.

I'm thinking about Jesus’ parting words: "Go and make disciples [students] of all nations." How do you be Jesus' follower and student? Telling people about Jesus is one way, of course, but also by acting in the ways of humility, mercy, and service that Matthew's very Jewish Jesus teaches throughout the gospel. Circling back to Matt. 25:31-46, we know Jesus is already among those who are in need, whoever and wherever they may be. To tell people about Jesus, is also to be where Jesus already is.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Bible in a Year: Judaism and Christianity on the Afterlife

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

As you study the Tanakh/Old Testament, you realize there's not much about the afterlife, whereas the subject becomes more prominent in the New Testament. I was going to delve into the differences between Judaism and Christianity on the afterlife, but I found three online articles instead. Although the promise of eternal life is precious, I also appreciate the emphasis in Judaism on doing good here and now.

Within the next week, I'll start taking notes about the Gospels.

Bible in a Year: Forms of Christ in the Old Testament

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

The following is a blog post from a few years ago, that delves into more connections between the Old and New Testaments.

One of my seminary professors was R. Lansing Hicks (1922-2008), whose obituary can be found at : He was my prof in spring semester 1980, after I had Brevard S. Childs for a class. Over the years I appreciated more and more Prof Hicks' lectures on the Christian use of the Old Testament. A few years ago, I emailed him stating this. I forgot about my note until Hicks’ son-in-law emailed me, stating that Hicks had been ill during his last year and hadn’t read his emails, but the son-in-law had found my note and communicated it to Hicks shortly before his death.

The moral of this story is, IF YOU WANT TO EXPRESS GRATITUDE TO SOMEONE FOR SOME KINDNESS OR HELPFULNESS, DON’T DELAY, DO IT NOW. This was the third or fourth time in my life that I sent a thank-you note to someone who died not long thereafter.

The moral of the rest of this post is: if you want to deepen your faith, finding connections and insights in the Bible is an excellent way.  A few months ago I found a short book by Hicks: Forms of Christ in the Old Testament: The Problem of the Christological Unity of the Bible, the William C. Winslow Memorial Lectures of 1968 at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. Several years ago I read Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Graeme Goldsworthy, and at about the same time, something at our church reminded me how little many of us know or appreciate the Old Testament and how it relates to the New. Consequently I’ve been interested in renewing my own Bible reading, and in helping people discover themes and passages that unify the testaments.

I wrote the original post for Trinity Sunday, an appropriate time to think about the identity of God among the scriptures. Again: these are simply my notes from an interesting book: find a copy on interlibrary loan for more insights! At the beginning of the book, Hicks quotes Gerhard von Rad’s question: “how far can Christ be a help to the exegete in understanding the Old Testament, and how far can the Old Testament be a help to him [or her] in understanding Christ?” (p. 6) Hicks offers a form-content approach which, by the end, also give us a stronger appreciation of the Old Testament and provides ideas for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.

First, we look at form, specifically the forms of words, actions, and a coalescence of both. (p. 9).

Forms of words. There are “words of suffering” (Job 16:18-17:2, 23; Ps. 22:1-2, 6-8, 14-18; 69:4-21; 116; Isaiah 53:3-9; Lamentations 3:1-24; and cf. Zechariah 12:10f), in which Christians perceived the form of Christ’s suffering (Matt. 8:17; Acts 8:32-35; 1 Peter 2:24f). There are words of forgiveness (Isaiah 40:2; 51:5f; Jer. 31:34; Hosea 14:4-7; Micah 7:19f; Zech. 13:1), in which Christians perceive the form of Christ’s pardon (Mark 2:5; Romans 10;5-13). There are words of salvation (Isa. 43:14-; 61:1-4; Jer. 23:5f; 31:2f; Ez.34:11-16; Zech. 8:13; cf. Ps. 20:30f), and words of life (Deut. 30:15-20; Isa. 25:6-8 [cf. Matt. 27:51; heb. 6:19; 10:20]; 26:19; Isa. 55:3; Amos 5:14); in which Christians perceive Christ’s power, too (Luke 20:37f; John 10:10; 11:25f; Heb. 11:17-19) (pp. 9-10).

Forms of action. There are forms of intercession: Abraham’s prayers for Sodom (Gen. 18:20-33), Moses’ prayers for the Israelites (Ex. 32:11-14, 31f), and the Servant’s actions (Isa. 42:2; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:13), in which Christian’s perceive the form of Christ’s self-oblation and intersession. There are forms of sacrifice, especially the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-18), certainly a text readable as a very Christological text. There are also forms of God’s self-limitation: God’s covenant with Noah never to flood the earth again (Gen. 9:8-17); God’s covenant agreements with Israel (Ex. 34:10-28); God’s selection of a place where God can be met (Ex. 25:8f, 17-22; Deut. 12:10-14; 1 Kings 5:3-5; 8:20f, 29; Ps. 132:14; Ez. 37:26f). In all of these examples of divine self-limitation, Christians perceive the divine self-emptying in Christ (John 1:14; Phil. 2:6f; Col. 1:19f.) (pp. 10-11).

Coalescence of words and actions. Hicks cites Ex. 3:7f as a good combination of God’s verbal promises and God’s saving activity (pp. 11-12) We also look at content. It’s not always the case that the Old Testament provides the form and the New Testament the content. There are reciprocal movements between the testaments:

1. It is Christ’s nature to expose sin, and thus, whenever the Old Testament exposes sin (e.g., Micah 3:8, or the law as understood by Paul in Rom. 7:7-12), “it shares in the work of Christ. “

2. It is Christ’s nature to forgive sins, and thus the Old Testament “knows Christ” where there is forgiveness of sins (Lev. 16:29f; Micah 7:18-20; Isaiah 55:6).

3. Similarly Christ’s suffering for sin, and the Old Testament knows this kind of suffering (Ex. 32:31-32; Jer. 20:7-18; 37-38; Isa. 53:4-6).

4. And also Christ’s redemption from sin (Isa. 40:1-4; 53;12; Ps. 22:30-31; 130:7-8).

5. We also see the Old Testament providing the content of redemption, as in Hosea 3:1-3, in which we see the form of Christ’ s work (pp. 11-14).

Forms of intention. In the Old Testament, we see God’s intention of salvation: Cain (Gen. 4:15ff, Noah (5:29; 8:21f), Abraham (12:1-3, 15:7-21; 17:1-8), as well as the Exodus and Sinai covenant, and God’s many promises like Isa. 1:16ff and 43:4. The divine intention of salvation of course continues into the New Testament as a mutual binding of the two testaments. “And where salvation is offered, there is Christ.” (pp. 15-16). Intention cannot be separated from certain other forms, such as the offering of the innocent for the salvation of the guilty (p. 16).

Forms of Coordinates. Hicks gives the example of Isaiah 45:21f, where “a just God” and “a saving God” are not contrasted but yoked as co-ordinates: God is both just and saving. God’s justice and righteousness, in fact, are showed in Isaiah’s several depictions of the Lord as comforter, vindicator, healer, preserver, and sanctifier (pp. 17-18).

Other examples of coordinate terms are Moses’ writings and Christ’s words (John 5:46f), “the way, truth and life” of John 14:6, the “Son of God” and “life” in 1 John 5:15; and the perfection and gifts of the law in Ps. 19:7-9. All these are coordinates which are also perceived in Christ (Matt. 11:28, John 1:4-9; 8:12; 11:25f) (pp. 19-20).

In an interesting second half of the book, Hicks makes several points. One is that “When reading the Old Testament, early Christians recognized in its words and acts forms of the divine salvation and knowing that there is one salvation, not two, confidentially believed them to be forms of Christ.”As the New Testament affirms the life given through Christ (Romans 10:9, John 14:6), so the Old Testament affirms the living giving power of God (Deut. 30:15; 32:39, Amos 5:6). “[T]he Jew of the Old Testament… was saved no less lovingly or fully than those Jews who encountered Jesus ‘in the days of his flesh’ or we today who profess the Christian faith. In these Old Testament affirms we meet ‘soteriological content.’ The form of each passage quoted differs from the others just as each differs from the form in which Paul makes his declaration [in Romans 10:9]. But the content is the same, and so is the intention—the gift of life abundant; and that life, wherever or whenever offered, is life with Christ and in Christ” (pp. 26-27).

Another point: “Recent editions of Nestle’s Greek New Testament offer an index of Old Testament verses either cited or alluded to in the New Testament which runs to more than 1400 items. Not only the number of citations but their scope also is noteworthy: the list contains all the books of the canonical Old Testament with the exception of four–Ruth, Ezra, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. This is not to imply that the New Testament authors saw Christ in virtually every book of the Old Testament; but these impressive statistics for the frequency and range of Old Testament quotations do indicate beyond reasonable doubt that early Christian writers found material of specific value to them as Christians in every section of the Old Testament…” (pp. 30-31).

These are not “proof texts” and not all are what we would call “Old Testament prophecies”: for instance, Zechariah 9:9 is not a prophecy or a proof-text when used in Matthew 21:4f. But this is part of a drama in Zechariah, in which Matthew found a form for elucidating Christ. Likewise using in Zech. 11:12-13, 12:10, and 13:7b, Matthew could “delineate the form of divine action in Christ’s passion and show its intention” (pp. 33-34, quote on p. 34). Similarly Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1, which is not a promise but a form of the divine action (pp. 35-36). And also: Matthew’s use of Jeremiah in Matt. 2:17f, a word of sorrow which connects us with the divine words of salvation and restoration in Jeremiah 31 (pp. 32-33).

Hicks sees this form-content approach as helpful in Jewish-Christian conversation. We can better understand the variety and intentions of God’s works in both testaments, and we can affirm the uniqueness of Christ without denigrating God’s other works as somehow lesser, or simply preliminary to Christ. Hicks quotes James Sanders: “The Christian will not, even privately, ask why the Jew does not accept Christ as Messiah, and the Jew will not, even privately, ask why the Christian does not accept the Old Testament as Jewish. Each will respect the historic claim on the Bible the other represents….” Hicks adds that the purpose of conversation “is not merely to encourage Jews to converse with us for their own profit but to bring us Christians to ‘the point of such a full and genuine encounter that we are lead into the depth of the Christian Presence amid Judaism’” (p. 38). [Here, Hicks quotes P. Schneider's The Dialogue of Christians and Jews, who continues: "Is it not possible that we have been blind to the further depths in which Jesus is made manifest in the travails and triumph of the Jewish people and faith throughout the ages? This is a dimension of the Lord Christ that Christians have yet to discover" (p. 177, in note 50 of Hicks, p. 45).]

Another way to put it is by N. T. Wright in his article “Paul’s Social Gospel: In Full Accord” (Christian Century, March 8, 2011, 25-28), where he writes, “There’s a swath of Western thought which…has said in effect that since the first plan has gone wrong, God has decided to do something quite different, to send his own Son to die for sinners, so we can forget about all that Isreael stuff….That is to misread Romans and to misunderstand Paul at his very heart. Instead, Paul declares in Romans 3:21 that God’s covenant faithfulness has now been revealed through the faithfulness of the Messiah for the benefit of all those who are faithful. He, the Messiah, is ‘Israel in person’” (p. 29).

Altogether, Professor Hicks, writes, “Herein the identification of Old Testament forms can contribute significantly to our understanding of the scope of Christ’s work through space and time. It widens the perspective through which we are helped to view the totality of Christ’s work. Does this not open further doors of understanding today? … Should not we extend this same affirmation to all works of redemption and deliverance? If so, we face the future of ecumenical discussion of with both confidence and anticipation and we turn eagerly toward dialogue with ‘secular [person]‘ in our ‘post-Christian’ age” (p. 39).

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Bible in a Year: New Testament Summary

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

Here's a summary of the New Testament, that I wrote a few years ago. Like many Christians, I tended to turn first to the New Testament as I began serious Bible studies. Leafing now through my old Bible that I've used since I was twenty, I find all my jottings from college and seminary when I studied the Bible (on my bed rather than at a desk), with commentaries to study, too. I can scarcely convey my excitement I felt when I discovered that the gospels contained evidence of early oral traditions, possible antecedent written sources, and intentional compositional ordering of material about Jesus.  I poured over the book Gospel Parallels, which lays out the Synoptic Gospels—Mathew, Mark, and Luke—in order to show textual similarities and differences.(1)

I learned that over 90% of Mark’s gospel is also found in Matthew and Luke, and that the latter two gospels have material in common that is not found in Mark: the so-called “Q” material. Matthew and Luke also have material unique to their own gospels, implying other sources that they used. I hadn’t doubted Jesus’ historical existence, but I was fascinated by the shaping of the material, the use of sources of Jesus’ words and deeds to put forward theological convictions. That the Gospels were not straightforward biographies, factual in all chronology and detail, didn’t matter to me in the least.(2)

Gospels and Acts 

In Matthew, Jesus addresses his mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). It seems the most Jewish Gospel but also the most angry in terms of the Jewish leadership. We get Jesus’ bitter diatribe in Matthew 23, but we also get strong connections of Jesus with the Jewish scriptures and traditions. Jesus by no means repudiates the Torah, but interprets it by his own authority. At the same time, Jesus provides hope for Gentiles, too (12:18, 15:28, 24:14, etc.), and among the gospels only Matthew uses the word “church” (ekklēsia). Matthew retains Mark’s basic geographical framework (the Galilean ministry, chapters 4-18; the journey to Jerusalem, 19-20; and the week in Jerusalem, 21-28:15), but unlike Mark, Matthew includes a birth narrative (including the stories of the Wise Men, the flight into Egypt, and the slaughter of the innocents).  The gospel presents Jesus’ teachings in five discourses (chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25), and uniquely gives us teachings such as the wicked slave (18:21-35), the landowner (20:1-18), the ten virgins (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the narrative of the last judgment (25:1-46).

Mark opens with, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Hasty, simply written, the gospel contains a key verse, 10:45: “the Son of man …came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Who is this Jesus, though?  As the gospel proceeds, Jesus’ friends don’t seem to “get” him. He confuses those closest to him. One of the saddest verses is 14:50, And they all forsook him, and fled. Meanwhile, the people on the “outside” identify Jesus right away: the demons, outcasts, and Gentiles. The first post-crucifixion person to “preach” Jesus is a Roman soldier who participated in his execution (15:39). And yet, for all its darker qualities, the gospel seems written to those already Christian for their guidance and comfort, as I’ve jotted in the margin. Mark’s gospel omits birth stories, devoting chapters 1 through 13 to Jesus’ ministry (chapters 1-9 in Galilee, chapter 10 on the way to Jerusalem, and 12-13 in Jerusalem), and then chapters 14 through 16 for Jesus’ passion.

Luke, the only Gentile author in the New Testament, wrote two accounts, both addressed to person named “Theophilus,” which means “God-lover.” (That was Mozart’s middle name: “Amadeus” is the Latin translation.) In the gospel, Jesus addresses his concerns for the poor and disadvantaged; Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 61:1-2 (Luke 4:18-19) doesn’t spiritualize the blind, oppressed, and imprisoned, but he proclaims liberty and release to them. “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20)—not “poor in spirit” which you and I might be able to claim. Unique to Luke’s gospel are the story of the good Samaritan (10:25-27), the story of Mary and Martha (10:38-42), the parables of the lost coin and the prodigal son (15:8-32), the story of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31), not to mention the stories at the Gospel’s beginning: the birth of John the Baptist, the Magnificat, the Benedictus, the song of Simeon, the shepherds in the field, the story of young Jesus in the Temple.

How is John related to the other gospels? Is it a different historical tradition or does it assume the traditions of Mark?  This is a debated subject; the basic outline and facts of Jesus’ life are there, but the stories are different: the water into wine, the Samaritan woman, the raising of Lazarus. John focuses on seven “sign” miracles, five of which are not found in the other Gospels. John’s is a “high” view of Jesus, a view that helps us understand him theologically. We don’t find parables and pericopes here, but rather long reflections and dialogues. While Jesus’ Synoptic parables do not deal directly with Jesus’ identity, John’s gospel contains numerous “I am” sayings. While the other gospels announce the Kingdom of God, in John, Jesus’ announces the Spirit that will guide Jesus’ followers.

Acts provides stories of the first (approximately) thirty-five years of the early church.  Peter dominates the first portion of Acts, Paul the second half. Luke frames the stories of Acts with affirmations about God’s kingdom (1:3, 28:1); Jesus had preached the kingdom, and after his ascension, the life-power of Jesus is given to people through the Holy Spirit, and so for Luke, the kingdom of God exists wherever people accept that ever-available life-power(3). Thus the disciples are instructed not to fret about the signs and portents of Jesus’ second coming, they have what they need for the present time, the Spirit promised in Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28-32, Acts 2:17-21).

In spite of its connection to Luke, I tended to think of Acts as a stand-alone historical account between the gospels and the epistles. But eventually I realized that Acts is as important as the gospels because the book provides the way that we know Jesus today. We’ll never know Jesus in the flesh—and judging from Jesus’ own words, we shouldn’t even long to have known him in the flesh (John 16:5-15). Now, Jesus is now fully present to us through the Holy Spirit.(4) Jesus’ story continues, if not in a scriptural way, in the innumerable book-length stories of us, his disciples (cf. John 21:25).

An explorer of these books will notice the way different gospels accounts are shaped, and how placement of stories and teachings elucidate meaning (4).  She’ll learn about God’s love from the many “pictures” of God (Mt. 18:10-14, 35, 19:13-15, Luke 7:36-50, 15:3-32, and others). She’ll try to regain a sense of childlike openness and wonder (perhaps lost in adulthood), which Jesus says is essential for understanding him (Mark 10:13-16). She’ll understand that those who are good, upright, Ten Commandments-following people are often the ones who can’t or won’t follow Jesus, and the sinners and strugglers may get into the kingdom first (Matt. 21:31-32, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 15:11-32).

The explorer should try not to isolate Jesus as a teacher and healer from Jesus as risen Lord upon whom she can call for help and guidance. Jesus’ teachings had characteristics of healing and vice versa. When Jesus taught, he aimed not just at ethical standards but also at the healing of our hearts. When Jesus healed people, he not only showed a concern for people’s physical needs but also wanted to teach people about God’s hope and salvation (Matt. 12:15-21).(5)


The Bible has many different kinds of literary genres.(6) In the two testaments you find history, poetry, legal codes, prophecy, songs, letters, sermons, gospels, and even one book of erotic poetry. Ideally, we should understand the different genres as we read, and genres overlap within books. Ezra contains autobiography, letters, and history; several of the prophets contain oracles and narratives. The gospels and Acts are history, but they’re also preaching. Hebrews is a sermon with an epistolary conclusion (though no epistolary greeting). Of course, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy form a long history and contain accounts of individual incidents, but the books also encompass legal codes and cultic (worship) instructions, while ancient Christian catechesis and liturgy, as in the Didache, are later than the canon.

We find very few letters in the Old Testament, but letters form the largest body material in the New Testament. The canon includes letters of James, John, Peter, Jude, the author of Hebrews, and Paul.  Paul’s several letters are arranged in order of length, although 1 and 2 Thessalonians were probably the earliest letters, and Philippians and 1 and 2 Timothy seem valedictory.  All these letters were written to individuals or churches in order to address particular issues, to deal with needs and problems, to convey information and greetings, and to communicate feelings. Although not intentionally written in an epigrammatic way, we can lift epigrams, slogans, and promises from the letters for our own needs, for within these letters are treasures of biblical proclamation and pearls of wisdom. If I were to give someone a single Bible book to convey the Gospel, I’d tell them to read Romans or Ephesians. Galatians is also excellent for communicating the Gospel, although it was written in frustration and anger; if you’ve a good commentary to help you, Galatians might help renew your faith.

The letters have different purposes and viewpoints. Like the Gospels, they’ve changing facets in which God’s light beautifies, changes, and illuminates. Reading in turn through my various marginal notes and scribbling:

Romans is Paul’s self-introduction to a church he wished to visit soon. He argues that God accounts us righteous by faith rather than works of the law. The righteousness of God is revealed in God’s justification of sinners through the atonement of Christ.

1 and 2 Corinthians is largely Paul’s words of teaching, advice, and reprimand to a congregation swayed by impressive teachers, confident in their own wisdom, and yet lacking in love and spiritual maturity.

Galatians is Paul’s frustrated letter to a Gentile church. Paul points out that the Galatians already evidence of God’s power and acceptance in their lives through the gifts of the Spirit. They must not add anything on to God’s work, including traditional Jewish rites like circumcision.

Ephesians and Colossians are similar letters, written (if Paul did write them) while he was imprisoned. He shows the sufficiency of Christ and God’s free salvation. In Christ we are built up as a church; Christ has removed barriers between God and us.

Philippians, another “prison letter,” is a joyful letter, warm and affirming for a congregation Paul clearly feels gratitude.

1 and 2 Thessalonians concern the second coming of Christ and the need to be watchful, though the first letter is warm and the second letter, though also warm, contains more admonishment.

1 and 2 Timothy concern the qualities of church leaders and provides advice and encouragement to Paul’s young colleague.  Titus also deals with church leaders and the need to deal with false teaching.

Philemon concerns a runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Paul has helped convert, and so Paul writes Onesimus’ master about the matter, hinting strongly that Onesimus should be freed.

Hebrews is an epistolary sermon by an unknown author to an unknown group of people. The title, which is a latter addition, is based on the fair assumption that the original audience consisted of converts from Judaism, who, more than a Gentile group, would have grasped all the many references to the Hebrew scriptures and traditions. Although its supersessionism demands contemporary reinterpretation, the sermon is beautiful, intricate, and argues the sufficiency of Christ compared with the angels, the prophets, and the temple.

James stresses the validity of one’s faith through the good works of one’s personal growth and one’s relationships with others. The book only mentions Jesus twice and is similar in style to Old Testament wisdom literature.

1 and 2 Peter concern the steadfastness of one’s faith in times of persecution and also in regard to false teachers.

1, 2, and 3 John all provide glimpses into the lives of the early church. 1 John, especially, teaches the need to demonstrate one’s faith through love.

Tiny little Jude, which quotes a non-canonical writing (1 Enoch 1:9), is closely related textually to 2 Peter and is concerned false teachers and apostasy.

After these brief epistles, we come to the final book, Revelation, which concerns the final times. It’s actually a letter, too (1:4), to seven Asian churches.  John must be a different man than the apostle, for the book’s style is dissimilar from the gospel and the letters, and this author does not identify himself as an apostle. The book chronicles the many signs of the end times and is written in symbolic language that harkens back to Old Testament prophecies.

The letters, like the gospels, aren’t just “about” Jesus but also witness to his living reality. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:16. This verse used to bother me; aren’t Jesus’ life and teachings important? They are, but Jesus’ life and teachings can’t be disconnected with his death and resurrection, and his earthly life cannot be disconnected with the eternal life that he now shares with us, And so it is not inappropriate that much of the New Testament deals not with specifics about Jesus’ life and teachings (the letters scarcely quote Jesus’ teachings explicitly) but the grand fact of his salvation and gifts of the Spirit. Now, as readers of this material, we too receive the first-century preaching of the Gospel of Jesus, and our lives, too, become guided and maintained by the Spirit.


We should also be humbled by the way the Bible witnesses to the imperfection of human efforts, including (perhaps especially) religious efforts, and God's compassion for us. The Israelites, in their centuries of life with God, provide example after example of doubt, complaint, loss of faith, idolatry, wrongdoing, and judgment. A knee-jerk Christian reaction might be, “Oh, those faithless Hebrews.” But look closely at the New Testament. Those scriptures reflect a much shorter time period than the Old Testament (fewer than a hundred years, depending on the conjectural dating of some of the epistles, compared to 1600 years between Abraham and Nehemiah), and so we don’t see the same kind of patterns of sin-judgment-repentance in the New compared to the Old. But in the New Testament, the early Christian congregations also struggled with problems: divergence from sound teachings (2 Tim. 4:1-5), the threat of apostasy (Heb, 6:1-8), factions (1 Cor. 1:10-17), unchastity (1 Cor. 6:12-20, 1 Thess. 4:1-8), incest (1 Cor. 5:1-5), lawsuits (1 Cor. 6:1-7), disrespect of the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:17-22), and others. All seven of the churches of Revelation received a scold or a warning or both. Thank God for God's steadfast love and loving kindness!



1. Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr., ed., Gospel Parallels: A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1973).

When we study the Gospels, it’s difficult not to mentally harmonize the material. For instance, we think of the “seven last words of Jesus,” but no single Gospel contains all seven; we mentally conflate the material.  In fact, a second century Christian named Tatian harmonized the content of the four gospels into a continuous life, called the Diatessaron, which we now know through variant versions of ancient copies. Howard Clark Kee, Jesus in History: An Approach to the Study of the Gospels (second edition, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 281-292.

2 I still have some of my favorite seminary paperbacks like Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper & Row, 1960); The Crucified Messiah and Other Essays(Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974), Studies in Paul (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977) and Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976), all by Nils Alstrup Dahl; and Klee, op. cit. Also Richard A. Buridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1994);  Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), and Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

3 Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 643.

4 William H. Shepherd, who has published several good books about preaching (CSS Publishing Co.) has also written the book The Narrative Function of the Holy Spirit as a Character in Luke-Acts (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1994).

5  I make this point in my book, What’s in the Bible About Jesus? for the series What’s in the Bible, and Why Should I Care? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), 43.

6 An introduction to the Bible’s types of writings is Margaret Nutting Ralph, And God Said What? An Introduction to Biblical Literary Forms (New York: Paulist Press, 1986, 2003).

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Bible in a Year: New Testament Background in Second Temple Judaism

Artist's imagining of the Second Temple,
This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

What a joy to focus Bible study upon the Old Testament! Studying those Bible books during these past several months, I've made so many wonderful discoveries. I particularly enjoyed using Jewish study materials for the Tanakh (the proper word for the Jewish Bible: "Old Testament" is of course a Christian term). I cherish my friendships and collegial relationships with Jews and love to understand the Scriptures through Jewish as well as Christian scholarship.

A Jewish friend points out that the New Testament is, to a Jew, quite unlike the Tanakh. We Christians are taught that the New Testament grows self-evidently from the Old, but different aspects of those scriptures resonated differently among Jews and early Christians. As one of my professors puts it, “certain chords were sounded by Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah which resonated strongly in the New Testament (new covenant, vicarious suffering, new creation, suffering servant).” Meanwhile, though, “other notes grew in intensity on which rabbinic Judaism sought to construct its faith (temple, cult, priesthood, law).”(1) Judaism had to survive the Roman destruction of the Temple  in 70 CE, and so the leadership of the Pharisees, segueing into the leadership of the Rabbis and Sages, preserved the scriptures and traditions of Judaism.

The New Testament also contains numerous negative depictions of Jews and Judaism. In subsequent posts, I'll be using a favorite book, The Reluctant Parting by Dr. Julie Galambush (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). A divinity school classmate, Julie takes each New Testament writing and explains its context within the first century Judaism, when the Jesus believers and other Jews became into conflict. Julie discusses how the anger focused toward Jews in the New Testament is often an expression of hurt and discouragement among Jews toward fellow Jews—and not Gentiles expressing hostility toward Jews. But the New Testament “taught” centuries of Gentiles exactly that: hostility toward Jews and Jewish faith.

And yet almost everything in Christian doctrine originates from the Jewish scriptures and traditions, refigured though those ideas may be. Major exceptions include the afterlife and last judgment (ideas that began to be debated within Judaism after the biblical period; the Eucharistic consumption of blood, very contrary to Torah kashrut teachings; and the Cross, a Gentile way of killing people. Early Christians (who were Jews) managed to make Old Testament connections even to these.

Here is an earlier blog post where I list several Old Testament passages that became important for New Testament writers. Christians' teachings about Jesus took them deeply into the Jewish scriptures, though in ways difficult to accept by other Jews.


The Old Testament ends with Malachi, probably written in the 400s BCE, although Esther is from that time or later, and Daniel and also the apocrypha books of the Maccabees are from the 100s BCE. Thus, the Old Testament ends with the community establishing Jewish faith and identity both in the land and in the diaspora. See my earlier post on the Talmud for the development of Rabbinic Judaism.

During this time of crisis and development for Judaism, Christianity emerged. Jesus, a Galilean Jew from Nazareth, was born about 4 BCE and died around 29 or 30 CE. Among the most famous Mishnah sages whose lives overlapped with Jesus, Hillel lived in about 100 BCE-10 CE. The sage Rabbi Akiva was born after Jesus died, living in about 50-135 CE. Some scholars believe that 1 Thessalonians, from about 50 CE, may be the earliest New Testament book.

This past week I heard a presentation by Lawrence Schiffman, Professor Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. Subsequently I ordered his book From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Hoboken: Ktav Publishing House, 1991). He has a good summary of the background of Christianity (pp. 149ff). After Herod's death in 4 BCE, Judea was ruled by Roman procurators, the first few of whom were wise, but Pontius Pilate--who of course ordered Jesus' execution--was an unwise ruler insensitive to Jewish customs, resulting in years of conflict and economic decline. Early Christianity began in this climate, "firmly anchored in the heritage of Second Temple sectarianism" (p. 149). This was a time of several other messianic movements. Jesus himself likely learned from among the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders of the time, although of course he and Pharisees had disagreements and discussions.

Eventually, as Schiffman writes, "Jesus' teachings apparently raised the ire of some of the Hellenized Jews in the leadership of the high priesthood, as well as of the Romans, who decreed his crucifixion. It is impossible from the incomplete accounts [apart from the Gospels] we have to determine exactly what led to the execution of Jesus, yet we know the tragic results of the widespread Christian assumption that the Jews were responsible for it" (p. 152).

The separation of Judaism and Christianity took about a hundred years, Schiffman writes. On the Christian side, we can see in New Testament traditions that the believers in Jesus' resurrection began to see Jews as "the other", with whom Jesus (though himself a Jew) disputed (p. 153). The New Testament writings reflected bitterness of Jesus-believing Jews toward other Jews.

In the very early days, Schiffman writes, Christians and Jews might still discuss the Hebrew Bible, but tensions arose and grew. On the Jewish side, tannaitic Judaism became the dominant kind of Judaism after the unsuccessful Jewish revolt against the Romans during the last third of the first century CE. (See my earlier post about the Talmud.) The Pharisees were the only survivors of the several groups that had existed during and right after Jesus' lifetime. As the Tannaim (sages of the Mishnah period) standardized Jewish beliefs, Jews who believed in the messiahship of Jesus were perceived as minim, or Jews with wrong beliefs. The Tannaim also developed laws to separate other Jews from commerce and interaction with the Christian minim (p. 153). By the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE), which effectively prevented Jews from returning to the Land, the Tannaim forbade  Christian writings.

The situation became complicated because, in the Apostle Paul's churches, Gentiles---that is, persons outside the purview of Talmudic halacha, or Jewish law---were becoming the dominant kind of Christian, and the minim, Jews who combined Jesus-belief with Torah-observance--faded away (p. 154-155)

When religion and politics combine, someone gets very hurt; in this case, in the 300s, the Roman empire became increasingly Christianized, eventually resulting in attacks on Jews and synagogues and other expressions of anti-Semitism (pp. 155-156). Legislation of the Christianized empire "set the stage for the tragic history of Jewish-Christian relations in medieval and modern times" (p. 156). James Carroll's book, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History (New York: Mariner Books, 2001) is a long and thorough account of this history.

I keep coming back to this eternal promise to the Jewish people:

  Thus says the Lord,
who gives the sun for light by day
   and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
   the Lord of hosts is his name:
  If this fixed order were ever to cease
   from my presence, says the Lord,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease
   to be a nation before me for ever (Jeremiah 31:35-36).


1. Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 176.