Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Bible in a Year: Hebrews

My favorite Bible, which I've used since
purchasing it new for a Spring 1977 semester college class. 
In 2017 and into Lent 2018, 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 post is about the Epistle to the Hebrews. I left off with Acts, so what happened to Paul? I’m still reading about the Jewish background of Paul’s letters, so I’m putting Paul on hold at the moment and skipping over to the non-Pauline, final epistles of the New Testament. Paul will make a good project for Lenten devotion, and then I'll have studied the whole Bible in a little over a year.

Parts of this post are based on my lessons “Encouraged to Be Faithful” in the June-July-August 2004 issue of Daily Bible Study. Many thanks to the editor at the time, Eleanor Moore, who retired with that issue after 41 years with the United Methodist Publishing House.

Hebrews is a fascinating book that assumes knowledge of certain Torah traditions like the Temple, priesthood, and sacrificial system. I’m always interested in ways that the New Testament connects to and depends on the Old Testament, and Hebrews has a wealth of connections.

Hebrews is one of the more supersessionist writings of the New Testament: that is, it contends that Christianity has superseded Judaism. We still (and always) must remember that the New Testament authors were not Gentiles who disdain Jews who don't believe in Jesus, but rather they were (except for Luke) Jews writing among other Jews, struggling with Jewish belief and identity, and thinking of Jesus Belief as a new kind of Judaism.

Hebrews was likely written in the 60s, prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 and the end of its priesthood and “cultus.” The author writes about those things as if they still existed, and surely would’ve written differently had they already been destroyed. Thus the author urges his congregation to keep looking to Christ who himself is priesthood and sacrifice.

Early church traditions are not unanimous about the author, perhaps (but likely not) Paul, or Apollos, and another possibility. Nor do we know to whom the letter was written. “Hebrews” is a title added by scribes because of its many Old Testament references. The audience seems to be Jews, living in a now unknown location (perhaps Italy) who have converted to Christianity and are second-generation Christians who are experiencing serious but not yet life-threatening persecution. Thus the author’s alternately encouraging and stern admonitions to stay faithful in their belief in Christ.

Hebrews begins like a sermon but ends like a letter. The opening sentence in the original Greek makes skillful use of alliteration (verse 1, transliterated, is Polymerōs kai polytropōs palai ho Theos lalēsas tois patrasin en tois prophētais), and all the letter is a well-written and rhetorically effective writing. The author affirms that God has spoken through forebears and prophets but now speaks through a Son, who is the “exact imprint of God’s very being.” Throughout the letter, the author uses a midrashic arguments for his point: in this case, setting Psalm 2:7, 2 Samuel 7:14, Deut. 32:43, Ps. 104:4, Ps. 45:6-7, Ps. 102:25-27, and Ps. 110-13 together to prove Christ as king and eternal son.

The letter alternates between deeply Jewish theological reflection and those stern admonitions. An interesting rhetorical device is the announcement of a theme prior to the author’s exposition: e.g., the reference to Melchizedek in 5:6 and 5:10 and then the main connection of Jesus to Melchizedek in chapter 7.

Here is an outline:

Introduction: Christ is God’s final revelation (1:1-3).

Jesus is Son of God and thus better than the angels (1:4-2:18). There must have been some discussion in the congregation about Jesus’ connection to the angels or to the power of angels, but Christ is true man, true sacrifice, and the Davidic King who has power to help us (2:18), none of which are true of angels.

Christ is superior to Moses and Joshua (chapters 3 and 4). This is not to disparage either man, but they were servants while Jesus is a Son. The author makes a sometimes difficult to follow, midrashic connection of Jesus to the Promised Land; while the first generation of the Israelites lost the chance to gain the “rest” of the Land (that is, the peace and prosperity of living there, also connected to the rest and worship of the Sabbath), because of their hard hearts and rebellion, Christ now provides a lasting “rest” for those who believe. The author uses the rebellion and later regret of the Israelites to admonish the congregation to stay faithful (e.g., 3:12, 4:11-13).

Suddenly the author calls Jesus the great high priest (4:14-16), in one of my favorite passages of Scripture:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Thus changing the subject from Sabbath and land to priesthood, Hebrews 4:14-7:28 concerns the priesthood of Christ. As the Temple priests sacrifice for the people through concern and compassion, so Christ intercedes for people through his divine compassion. A problem with the Aaronic priesthood, though, is that the priests were mortal and must be replaced periodically. The Hebrews author makes a connection to Melchizedek (Genesis 10), who appears in scripture without a genealogy, giving him a symbolic kind of immortality—plus, Melchizedek’s greatness is displayed in the fact that even father Abraham deferred to him and paid him a tithe. For the Hebrews author, Jesus’ priesthood is of the order of the "eternal" Melchizedek rather than of Aaron. (Perhaps someone in the congregation wondered how Jesus could be a priest if he was of the tribe of Judah rather than of Levi.) The author also uses Psalm 110:1-3 to make this connection. Of course, typical of the letter, this section also contains warnings and encouragements to the congregation.

Hebrews 9:1-10:18 concern the old and new covenants, drawing from prophetic promises (Second Isaiah and Jeremiah in particular) for a new covenant for the future. The author also connects Jesus to the sacrifices themselves. The sacrifices had to be done over and over again—because people always sin—as the blood was laid upon the sanctuary altar. But Jesus offered his own blood, and because he is the eternal Son and priest, his blood is an offering that is eternal, once for all.

Hebrews 10:19-12:29 follows on that: the author reminds the congregation that Christ is the foundation of our faith and hope, and they must endure in order to gain Christ’s benefits and blessings. Chapter 11 is a famous reiteration of heroes of faith who did remain faithful to God even in terrible circumstances. With this great “cloud of witnesses” in mind and heart, we must “run with perseverance” and keep our eyes on “Jesus the pioneer and perfecto of our faith” who know sits at God’s right hand (position of power) (12:1-2).

The author reminds the congregation that they have not yet been persecuted in ways that involve bodily harm (12:3) and encourages them about God’s discipline. I don’t believe that one should consider all hardship as correction and discipline sent by God; some hardships are just awful things that God does not want us to suffer. But opportunities for faith and strength can be found in hard circumstances. In 12:18-29, the author makes a penultimate warning against giving up faith, for the benefits of Christ are too wonderful to lose.

13:1-25 is the epistolary conclusion, warning them one more time (12:7-17) but also asking for prayers (13:18-19), asking them to be actively faithful, as well as empathetic and helpful to those who are suffering (13:3). The next to last verse, “Those from Italy send you greetings,” may or may not suggest that the congregation is in Italy and the author, who is elsewhere, knows believers who are also from Italy.

Here is another summary and discussion of the epistle, which has a good concluding reminder: "In a changing world, where the old landmarks disappear and old standards are no longer recognized, the only constant point of reference is the unchanging, onward-moving Christ, 'the same yesterday and today and for ever' (13:8); the path of wisdom is to face the unknown with Him. Our author anticipates Herbert Butterfield in finding here 'a principle which both gives us a firm Rock and leaves us the maximum elasticity for our minds; the principle: Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted' (Christianity and History [1950], 146)."

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan

For my birthday in January, my daughter (who studied in Japan during most of 2016) bought me a book by Reiko Chiba, The Seven Lucky Gods of Japan (Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1966). What an interesting little book! She had earlier bought me a wall hanging of the seven gods in their treasure ship (see below). My wife Beth and I were first alerted to the gods when we were walking around the Machida area of Tokyo and noticed this statue (to the right) of the large headed god Fukurokuju. We didn't know the statue's significance because we couldn't read the inscription, but Emily filled us in later.

The Seven Lucky Gods are (except for one) based on deities of nearby cultures and have become popular patrons of different professions and virtues. The book gives a long list of professions that each god supports. Here is a brief summary of the seven:

Benten, or Benzaiten, is the goddess of art, knowledge, and beauty. She wears a flowing dress and holds a biwa (Japanese flute). She is similar to the Hindu goddess Sarasvati (who would be my favorite deity if I were Hindu.

Ebisu is the god of wealth, fair trading, and good fortune, and is considered an indigenous Japanese deity. He often holds a fishing rod.

Hotei is the god of good health and guardian of children, and also of magnanimity and good fortune.
When people erroneously think of Buddha (Siddhartha) as a little fat and bald, happy man, they are actually thinking of Hotei, who is based on the 10th century zen priest Kaishi.

Bishamon, or Bishamonten, is the defender against evil and protector of warriors. He is depicted as an armed warrior in armor.

Daikoku, or Daikokuten is the god of commerce, trade, and wealth, commerce and trade. He is depicted as a smiling man, holding a mallet. Interestingly, he may have originally been a deity of death like the Hindu god Mahakala.

Fukurokuju is the god of longevity, wealth, and happiness. He may have originally been a Dao god, or perhaps Confucius' disciple Roshi. Fukurokuju has an elongated forehead and a moustache, and holds a walking stick with a scroll. He is the only god of the seven to have power to revive the dead.

Jurojin is also a deity of longevity, as well as wisdom. He is an old, white-bearded man who wears a hate and carries a walking stick with a scroll.

My book indicates that the gods ride in a magic boat called the Takarabune, and they travel in this treasure ship from heaven to human ports each New Year's Eve. A person might place a picture of the gods under his or her pillow and, if the person dreams about the gods (and does not tell anyone about the dream), he or she will have good fortune for the year. The earliest mention of the Seven Lucky Gods as a group dates to the 15th century, in Fushimi.

Tu B'Shvat

Here's a website explaining the Jewish festival Tu B'shvat, "the birthday of trees." This year, the day begins this evening (January 30th). Lots of great significance in this minor holiday!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Bible in a Year: Acts

Mr. Saki, helping me study Acts 
In 2017 and into Lent 2018, 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 Acts of the Apostles (in Greek, Πράξεις τῶν Ἀποστόλων, "Práxeis tôn Apostólōn" or "deeds of the Apostles." "Praxis" is a Greek word that has moved into English). I wrote most of this post on Dr. King’s birthday, thinking about ways we are faithful to the Gospel today.

Acts gives us the account of the spread of Jesus-Belief from Jerusalem to Rome, in the course of a little over thirty years. Luke addresses “most excellent Theophilus,” who is possibly an important person of some kind who had questions about Jesus and his followers, but who was receptive to the new Christianity. Although Philip, Barnabas, Apollos, and others are important characters in the story, Peter dominates the first part of the story, Paul the second.

My seminary classmate William Shepherds wrote a good book describing the Holy Spirit as a "character" in Luke-Acts. As one reads these biblical books, it's helpful to think of God's Spirit as the major figure in the narrative.

The"journeys of Paul" is one of those blocks of biblical geographical material---like post-Noah migrations of Genesis 10-11, the tribal allotments in Joshua, and the Israelite kingdoms of 1 and 2 Kings---which can be rewarding to study. I read somewhere (and didn’t note the source) that Acts implicitly connects us back to Genesis 10-11. In Genesis, the generations following Noah spread into the world, with an accompanying confusion of languages. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit creates understanding of the Gospel among persons of many languages, and consequently the message of Christ goes out into the world.

The author of this site,, points out that Acts stresses the unity of the church (2, 4, 15, 20) and provides “progress reports on how the church advanced through the world (2:47; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:30, 31). Theophilus would have thus understood how a Jewish sect in Jerusalem reached Rome within a generation. (Acts and Joshua and quite different Bible books, but they both tell a story of a unified purpose and notable success thanks to divine grace and guidance.)

Acts opens with the last days on earth of Jesus in his visible, resurrected body. He ascends to Heaven, but it’s easy to overlook the importance of the Ascension in the overall drama taking place (Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised gift of the Holy Spirit).

The disciples replace Judas. As they’re gathered together a little later, they are filled with God’s Spirit which allows them to speak and be understood in different languages, impressive for Diaspora Jews who have traveled to Jerusalem for Pentecost (Shavuot). Peter’s sermon results in a positive response from pilgrims, with 3000 becoming the first assembly of unified Jesus Believers.

Peter heals a lame man, for which he is detained for a while, and he takes the opportunity to preach another sermon to his opponents. As the assembly of Jesus Believers grows, they face different kinds of struggles, like the deceit of Sapphire and Ananias, opposition of religious leadership, and tensions between Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews. The later is addressed when the apostles establish a more organized ministry to assist widows. One of the selected assistants, Stephen, becomes a noted preacher, too—-but his sermon results in his impromptu execution on the charge of blasphemy. As we saw in Matthew’s gospel, too, Stephen has a “deuteronomistic” attitude toward the religious leadership, viewing them through the history of the rejection of God’s prophets. But Stephen also alludes to Psalm 110:1, a favorite verse throughout the New Testament, that envisions Jesus as sitting with God in the position of power. As he died, Stephen offered prayers of intercession and forgiveness (Acs 7:60), a lesson for all of us.

Although the church becomes scattered around Palestine and Syria as a result of Stephen’s death, Philip has a notable ministry in and around Samaria, including his conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch, presumably the first Gentile convert to Jesus Belief.

Saul, a diaspora Jew and Pharisee also known by his Roman name Paulus, becomes a crucial figure in the movement in chapter 9, when the feared persecutor has an experience of the risen Jesus, is ministered to by Ananias, and becomes a preacher of Christ.

The story returns to Peter in chapters 9, 10, 11, and 12, which tell of his healing ministry as well as his meeting with Cornelius (a meeting which the Holy Spirit had set up). Another turning point in the story of the gift of the Spirit to the gentile soldier and his family. James dies and Peter is imprisoned during a time of persecution, but Peter is saved through God’s intervention.

Paul is the major figure in Acts 13 on. First, he and Barnabas travel to Cyrpus, Pisidian Antioch, and Iconic to Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe. They return to Antioch, but meanwhile the issue of Gentile inclusion in the predominantly Jewish sect required attention. The Jerusalem Council of the church (chapter 15) ruled that just a few Jewish mitzvot were required for Gentile converts, but not circumcision for the men. (The following six paragraphs are from an earlier post.)

I took down a favorite book that my grandmother gave me when I was 14: The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, Merrill C. Tenney general editor (Zondervan, twelfth printing 1971). In the center of the book, following page 624, there is a section called "The Journeys of St. Paul," with clear plastic pages that you can place over the map of Greece and Asia Minor, to see the approximate routes of Paul's travels.

That same section has summaries of Paul's travels. This is a lot to quote, but I copied the material here for my own interesting:

"First Journey of St. Paul. Acts 13:1-14:28. The church at Antioch 'set apart' Paul and Barnabas for 'the work whereunto I have called them' and they sailed to Salamis on Cyprus, Barnabas' native island. Assisted by John Mark, they preached at Salamis and then journeyed across to Paphos, from which port they sailed to Perga in Pamphylia where Mark left them. From this point they invaded Asia Minor, touching Antioch in Pisidia, Iconic, Lystra, where Paul was stoned and left for dead, and Derbe. Retracing their steps, they further instructed the converts and organized them into churches with properly selected leaders. Sailing from Attalia, they returned to their starting point in Syrian Antioch.

"Second Journey of St. Paul. Acts 15:36-18:22. Because of contention with Barnabas over John Mark, Paul chose Silas as his companion on the second journey. Leaving Antioch, they visited churches in Syria on their way to Derbe and Lystra. Here Timothy joined them and they traveled throughout Phrygia and Galatia. At Troas they received the call to Macedonia where churches were founded at Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea. Moving on to Athens, Paul delivered his great sermon before the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers on Mars Hill. Leaving thens, they journeyed to Corinth and founded the church there before going on to Ephesus. From there Paul sailed to Caesarea and visited Jerusalem.

"Third Journey of St. Paul. Acts 18:23-21:16. Departing once more from Antioch, Paul 'strengthened the disciples' in Galatia and Phrygia on his way to Ephesus where he spent two years and three months teaching and preaching. It was here at Paul's preaching provoked violent conflict with the silversmiths, and the financially-prompted riot led by Demetrius brought his ministry to an abrupt end. After a stay of three months in Greece, Paul sailed from Philippi to Troas and then on to Miletus where he had his meeting with the Ephesian elders. From Miletus Paul took a ship to Tyre, and after a brief delay he continued on to Jerusalem.

"Fourth Journey of St. Paul. Acts 21:17-28:31 Following Paul's arrest in Jerusalem and the exposure of the plot to kill him, he was moved under heavy protective guard to Caesarea, where he remained in prison for some two years. During this period Paul's case was heard first by Felix, then by Agrippa. But because of his appeal to Caesar, he, accompanied by Luke and Aristarchus, was displayed on a ship to Rome. At Myra they transferred to an Alexandrian grain ship bound for Italy, but after riding out a typhoon for fourteen days, the ship was wrecked on Malta. Three months later they continued on to Rome, where Paul was placed in custody. He probably was set free and had a further unrecorded ministry. According to tradition he was executed in Rome in A.D. 66 or early 67."

I’ve been thinking about ways the New Testament communicates an unintentional anti-Judaism that evolved over time to overt prejudice and persecution of Jews. Acts depicts Jesus-believing Jews and Gentiles as the true Israel, and since Jews opposed the Christians, sometimes violently, they become enemies of the Gospel. Unfortunately, Christians begin to adopt anti-Jewish or antisemitic attitudes for their own time and place. In his Writings of the New Testament, my seminary prof Luke Johnson indicates that in Acts 16-28, the term “Jew” is used about 70 times to refer to opponents to Paul’s message (p. 237), although Acts does include Gentile hostility to Paul as well. This is not meant to be a rejection of Judaism or the Jewish scriptures, but a new time in Israel’s history, and Paul understood himself to be a teacher of Judaism (p. 237).

Johnson reminds us that “God had always willed in principle that Israel’s blessing should be extended to the Gentiles as well” (p. 228). This is a theme that begins back in Luke, with the allusion to Isaiah 42:6 in Luke 2:32, as well as the citation of Isaiah 40:5 in Luke chapter 3 (p. 228). Luke 24:47 and Acts 1:8, as well, teach Jesus’ command to preach to all the world (p. 228).

Acts depicts an important process that is still part of the church’s life: how do we perceive God’s work in something new that is happening? How do we know it is the Spirit at work? How do we address resistance to our message? How do we both show and tell people about Christ in a positive, helpful way, that is truly the good news of which Jesus spoke back in Luke 4:16-21?

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Bible in a Year: John (Part 3)

In 2017 and into Lent 2018, 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.

One more set of notes about the Gospel of John. I’m always interested in discovering connections between the Old and New Testaments. At the recent Social of Biblical Literature meeting, I found a fascinating book by Brian Neil Peterson, John’s Use of Ezekiel: Understanding the Unique Perspective of the Fourth Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015). Those are two books I’d never thought to connect!  

In his first chapter, Peterson summarizes several of the differences between John’s gospel and the Synoptics—including the fact that John seems to allude to or quote the Old Testament less often than the Synoptics (27 times, compared to 124 for Matthew). But Peterson argues that Ezekiel was a major influence for John. Some of the connections include:

The vine imagery in Ezekiel 15 and John 15 (p. 13).

The shepherd imagery in Ezekiel 34 and John 10 (p. 13).

The emphasis in Ezekiel upon God’s majesty and holy name, compared to passages in John like chapter 1, and Jesus’ self-identification with God (pp. 14-15).

Ezekiel’s use of extended oracles, and Jesus’ longer speeches (instead of the Synoptics’ pericopes and parables) (p. 15).

The ministry of Ezekiel in a foreign land, and the “foreignness” of Jesus who relates to people outside the usual circles (pp. 15-16).

The way both John and Ezekiel begin with a vision of majesty (John 1 and Ezekiel 1-3) (chapter 2).

The way the John emphasizes Jesus’ miracles as “signs,” and Ezekiel’s several sign acts (chapter 3).

The departure of God’s Glory from the Temple (Ez. 8-11) connects to Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple, and John’s early placement of the event in Jesus’ ministry (chapter 4).

Ezekiel’s vision of a restored Temple (Ez. 40-43), and Jesus’ own teaching of a restored Temple—in his own person (chapter 7).

Ezekiel’s frequent use of the expression “that they/you will know that I am Yahweh”, compared to Jesus’ several “I am” statements in John’s Gospel (chapter 5).

Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones (Ez. 37), and Jesus’ teaching of resurrection and unity, particularly John 17 and Ez. 37:15-28, and John 20 with Ez. 37 (chapter 6).

Overall, the setting of Ezekiel is the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE and the hardships of the aftermath, while the background of John (likely a late first-century document) was the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the hardships faced by Jews and Christians (p. 205). Ezekiel—whose prophetic-priestly ministry required personal suffering—became a useful prophet that shaped John’s vision.

Peterson makes numerous interesting points of analysis in this book, recommended for your study!

Bible in a Year: John (Part 2)

In 2017 and into Lent 2018, 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.

I’m continuing my study of John. Unfortunately, John is the most anti-Jewish-sounding Gospel, and that has been a tragedy for Jews over the centuries. My friend of blessed memory, Rabbi Albert Plotkin of Phoenix, wrote in his memoirs: “I am always concerned about religious anti-Semitism because unless the New Testament is interpreted correctly, you get a very hostile picture of Jews in the Gospel of John. He was not very friendly to us. Of course, John is the heart of Christian theology. John’s thinking and John’s teachings became the central focus in the historical development of Christianity. That was the one Gospel that took center stage, and all the Christian theological thinking and all of the passion plays come from John… The other Gospels are pro-Jewish… We have to overcome that hostility in some way. That is why I have worked hard at interfaith programs. i really feel that the answer has to come from greater communication between us. We need to understand one another… We need dialogue for many purposes because there are many non0Jews who do not understand Judaism, who have certain stereotypes about Jews and Jewish thinking and Jewish ideas about who we need to educate our community” (Rabbi Plotkin, Tempe: ASU Libraries, 1992, p. 123).

This is a helpful site that illustrates the anti-Judaism in John’s Gospel. John uses “the Jews” 71 times (compared to 16 in the Synoptics), almost always in a negative way, linking Jews to the devil (8:44), blaming them for Jesus’ death (18:3, 19-24, et al.), and holding them at a distance (21:13, 11:55, et al.) as if Jesus and his disciples weren’t observant Jews, too! The author notes that it’s hard to read John as a criticism of Jews as an ethnic group, and not what John’s Gospel was, a group of Jews who had been removed from the synagogue and felt oppressed as a new, “inside” group of Jews.

Here also is a helpful article, by D. Moody Smith, “Judaism and the Gospel of John." Smith has a number of good points about this problem. Toward the conclusion of the article, he reminds us that both Judaism and the new Christian movement were in a time of stress and entrenchment at the time (late first century). In the aftermath of the Roman War of 66-73 CE, in which the Temple were destroyed, the Jewish leadership addressed the future of Judaism (see my earlier summary of the Talmud) which, in turn, omitted sectarian groups from the character of Judaism. The Johannine community, on the other hand, was zealous about Jesus and Jesus Faith, and they saw themselves as possessors of the true kind of Judaism. (I’ve met Christians, fresh from an energizing spiritual retreat, who return to their congregations and think everyone is far less “spiritual” than they. These “newly spiritual” people can be quite intolerant and divisive!)

Smith writes: “Historical circumstances have changed, and continue to change. The setting of modern Judaism is in many respects both more diverse and more hopeful than that of its late first-century counterpart. Yet the continued threat to the existence of modern Israel is almost universally viewed by Jews as a threat to Jewish survival. The Holocaust, of recent and bitter memory, represented a more dire threat to Judaism than the Roman war. After all, the Romans only wanted the Jews to be reasonable--by Roman standards, of course; they did not want to destroy the Jewish people or their religion. The Nazis wanted to destroy both.

“There is something in the Johannine blacklisting of the Jews, the consigning of them to this world and to Satan, that in Jewish eyes foreshadows the Holocaust or the annihilation of Judaism. Such a dire, negative view of Jews and of the whole world is undeniably present in John. But, paradoxically, it is precisely John's Gospel that presents the motivation, meaning, and effect of God's revelation in Jesus as love. Furthermore, the love of God finds its true response in reciprocal human love that will lead to the unity of the community of love. It is a concept of revelation and response that is in principle universal. In the course of the vagaries and vicissitudes of history, the universal goal was jeopardized, and the dualistic division between truth and falsehood, light and darkness, seemed to be the last word.”

Smith continues that although we shouldn’t characterize the Johannine Community and Pharisaic Judaism as “liberal” and “conservative”—labels that oversimplify the situation—they do represent opposites, demanding loyalty to their respective positions—but opposites WITHIN THE JEWISH TRADITION. We Christians no longer need to feel competitors with Jews but can and should be friends and partners in witnessing to God.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Baptism of Jesus

A post from 2013. A former Honors College student who is now a Byzantine Catholic nun commented on Facebook about the beauty of prayers in the Eastern tradition. Unfamiliar with that aspect of the tradition, I asked her for a recommendation of a prayer book and she recommended The Festal Menaion. This edition is translated by Mother Mary of the Orthodox Monastery of the Veil of the Mother of God, Bussy-en-Othe, France, and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware of the University of Oxford: South Canaan, PA, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1998. For the past few days I've loved exploring this beautiful book with its Orthodox liturgical texts, and praying some of the prayers during personal quiet times.

As I delved into this prayer book in conjunction with Jesus' baptism (commemorated in many churches on January 7), I thought more about water---the reality of God's power over water, God's presence in the power of water itself, the scriptural connections of water with salvation, and water's significance in the rites of churches----as I encountered several readings and tones for the Eastern feast of The Holy Theophany (January 6). These scriptures give me much to reflect upon in the overall context of Christ's baptism:

*  The power of the sea over the Egyptians, who perished once the split sea returned to natural course (pp. 339-340).

*  The day the Jordan River split, allowing dry ground to form as the Israelites with Joshua crossed over into the land, and they “were passed clean” (Joshua 3:7-8, 15-17: p. 341).

*  The power of Elijah’s mantle that also split the Jordan, allowing him and Elisha to pass on dry ground (2 Kings 2:6-14: pp. 341-342).

*  The story of Naaman, the captain of the Assyrian armies, who through the miraculous power of God evoked by Elisha, could bath in the Jordan and become clean from his leprosy (2 Kings 5:9-14: pp. 341-343.).

*  The saving waters of the Nile that carried the ark containing baby Moses to safety (Ex. 2:5-10: 344-345).

*  The dew that appeared on Gideon’s fleece, signifying God’s favor (Judges 6:36-40: p. 345).

*  The story of Elijah soaking the altar and its trench with abundant water, which would not quench the heavenly fire (1 Kings 18:30-39: pp. 345-346).

*  The healing of the waters by Elisha at Jereicho (2 Kings 2:19-21: pp. 346-347).

*  The blessing of water in the post-exilic prophesies of Isaiah (55:1-13: pp. 349-350).

*  Paul’s connection of the waters of the rock at Meribah in Exodus 17, and Christ the Rock with his spiritual drink (1 Cor. 10:1-14: pp. 350).

After thinking about these readings, I loved this prayer for The Holy Theophany by Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem (pp. 353-355). Here is a portion:

“O Trinity supreme in being, in goodness, and in Godhead, almighty, who watchest over all, invisible, incomprehensible, Maker of spiritual beings and rational natures, innate Goodness, Light that none can approach and that lightens every [one] that comes into the world: Shine upon me Thine unworthy servant….

“Today the glittering stars make the inhabited earth fair with the radiance of their shining. Today the clouds drop down upon making the dew of righteousness from on high. Today the Uncreated of His own will accepts the laying on of hands from His own creature. Today the Prophet and Forerunner approaches the Master, but stands before Him with trembling, seeing the condescension of God towards us. Today the waters of the Jordan are transformed into healing by the coming of the Lord. Today the whole creation is watered by mystical streams. Today the transgressions …. are washed away by the waters of the Jordan. Today Paradise has been opened …. and the Sun of Righteousness shines down upon us. Today the bitter water, as once with Moses and the people of Israel, is changed to sweetness by the coming of the Lord…..

"Today earth and sea share the joy of the world, and the world is filled with gladness. The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee and were afraid. The Jordan turned back, seeing the fire of the Godhead descending bodily and entering its stream. The Jordan turned back, beholding the Holy Spirit coming down in the form of a dove and flying about Thee. The Jordan turned back, seeing the Invisible made visible, The Creator made flesh, the Master in the form of a servant. The Jordan turned back and the mountains skipped, looking upon God in the flesh; and the Light of Light, true God of true God. For today in the Jordan they saw the Triumph of the Master; they saw Him drown in the Jordan the death of disobedience, the sting of error, and the chains of hell, and bestow upon the world the baptism of salvation….” (pp. 353-355).

Here is another post, where I think about connections of Jesus' baptism and Joshua's conquest:

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Bible in a Year: John (Part 1)

My 1500th post on this blog!

In 2017 and into Lent 2018, 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 John. This post is based on my article, “John, the Different Gospel,” in Adult Bible Studies (Teacher), March-April-May, 1999), 2-5.  

Here's an outline of the gospel:

1: Introduction. The Word is with God and the Word is God, and the Word became flesh. John the Baptist is not the Word but came to bear witness.

2:1-5:47: Speeches, miracles, and incidents: the wedding at Cana, the “cleansing” of the Temple, the meeting with Nicodemus, the meeting with the Samaritan woman, healing opportunities, and conflicts with authorities. Of course, this is where we find the famous John 3:16.

6:1-10:42: Miracles like the feeding of the five thousand, the healing of the man born blind; Jesus’ Temple teachings, and more conflicts. Chapter 10 has some of the gospel’s most famous phrases: “I am the gate [or “door”]. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (vs. 9). “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (vs. 10b). “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (vs. 11). “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (vs. 16). “The Father and I are one” (vs. 30). “…the scripture cannot be annulled [or “broken”]… (vs. 35b).

11:1-12:50: The raising of Lazarus, foreshadowing of Jesus’ “hour”, the anointing by Mary, and the entry into Jerusalem. “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). The appearance of Greeks (i.e. Gentiles) in chapter 12 is a bit of foreshadowing, that Jesus will be executed by Gentiles and also that his message will eventually go out into the Gentile world.

The content of John's Gospel turns toward Jesus' last days in Jerusalem.

13:1-17:26: The washing of the disciples’ feet, his farewell speech to them, and his “high priestly prayer.” “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6).

18:1-19:42: Jesus’ arrest, trial, death, and burial.

20: Jesus’ resurrection appearances and an allusion to his ascension.

21: His resurrection appearance at the sea.

Anyone who has read the Gospels know that John is both similar to and quite different from the Synoptic Gospels. The Synoptics, of course, were likely written as part of shared traditions, with Matthew and Luke reliant upon Mark and other sources. John shares with the Synoptics the basic outline of Jesus’ ministry: the work of John the Baptist; the call of the disciples; Jesus’ ministry of healing, teaching, and controversy; the entry into Jerusalem; the Last Supper; Jesus’ trial, passion, and death; and the Resurrection. John and the Synoptics also share several stories: the incident at the Temple, the healing of the son of the official, the feeding of the five thousand, the sea miracle, the confession of Peter, and the anointing at Bethany.

The Synoptics has stories that John lacks, like infancy stories, and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. While Jesus teaches in parables in the Synoptics, he teaches in longer discourses in John.

The Synoptics seem to have a one-year ministry for Jesus (that is, they only mention one Passover); but John mentions three Passovers (2:13, 6:4, 11:55). In John, Jesus journeys to Jerusalem three times (2:13, 5:1; 7:10), but in the Synoptics, Jesus’ ministry is mostly in Galilee and its vicinity, and Jesus only goes down to Jerusalem at the end.

John has stories that the Synoptics lack: the miracle of the wine; the Samaritan woman; the healing at Beth-sada; the healing of the man born blind; and the raising of Lazarus. Although the story of the woman caught in adultery is not in the oldest manuscripts of John, it did become added to John later, and it is not found in the Synoptics.

In John, Jesus died the day before Passover (18:28; 19:14), which was on a Friday, while in the Synoptics, Good Friday was the first day of Passover.

In John, the disciples have less of a role, compared to Matthew, Mark, and Luke—although Nathaniel (chapter 1) and Thomas (chapter 20) have significant appearances, and Peter is important in all four Gospels. John’s gospel refers to “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” whom church tradition back to Irenaeus has identified as John. If John was not the actual author, his testimony is the foundation of the narrative (21:24).

While John has a few parables and proverbs, Jesus talks less about the kingdom of God than of themes like light and life, in longer monologues, dialogues, and stories. Jesus’ speech is John 14-17 is a little longer than his other long speech, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).

While in the Synoptics Jesus uses third-person references to the Son of Man, and Jesus also tells people not to say anything about their experiences of his healing, etc. But in John, Jesus speaks more boldly about himself; he refers to his unity with God the Father, and the fact that Jesus does the work of the Father (5:17, 5:38, 6:45, 8:29, 14:6, and others. John's gospel is more of a theological reflection upon the meaning of Jesus.

Certainly the prologue of John is unlike anything we’ve seen so far in the New Testament. The Gospel author affirms that Jesus is the creative glory of God, who has now become human and dwells among the people. That word “dwells” makes us think of the “dwelling” of the glory of God in the Temple.

Although Jesus refers to God’s Holy Spirit in the other Gospels, John chapter 14 has Jesus teaching more about the parakletos, or “Paraclete,” which means counselor, comforter, advocate in different translations. The Spirit will continue Jesus’ ministry after Jesus is no longer physically present with his followers.

John’s Gospel also affirms a very present presence of Christ, not just in the end times (5:24, 12:31, 14:30, 17:3-4, and others). The “ruler of this world” is already condemned, and God’s life is already given to believers (5:24). We are thus called to believe and have confidence even though we have not experienced Jesus’ physical presence (20:29b, 31).

In a way, the very last verse of John includes all of us, as we have our own stories of the living Christ that we can tell, and all the books in the world could scarcely contain all of our testimonies from all the centuries.