The reading of the whole story of Jesus’ last night and day of his ministry, the last supper, trial, crucifixion and burial, is an important part of Christian liturgy on this Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (Palm Sunday). It poses a particular problem when, as this year, it is the turn of Matthew’s gospel.
This is the basement grotto of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The site incorporates a first-century house, which is traditionally claimed to be Mary’s house. The inscription on the altar states “Verbum caro hic factum est – Here the Word was made flesh”.
Not to be outdone by those pesky Catholics claiming the location of Mary’s home, just down the road the Orthodox have built the Church of St Gabriel, incorporating the well at which an early apocryphal text (the second-century Protevangelium of James) narrated Mary’s first encounter with Gabriel. This text splits Luke’s narrative: the initial greeting comes at the well, the remainder of the conversation back at the house. The scene is portrayed in the courtyard of St Gabriel’s Church, below.
There seems to me (despite this territorial competition) to be something tremendously important about adding that “hic” (here) to St John’s prologue – “here the Word was made flesh”. It is not an argument about any kind of certainty that anyone has identified a holy site accurately. I doubt anyone is going to uncover a “Yeshua was here” graffitum. It is rather a reminder that this is a specific story, told about named people at a particular time in history, at a (theoretically) identifiable place.
I often hear people speaking about “the principle of incarnation”. I’ve nothing against such a principle, but the language can sometimes sound as if incarnation is the sort of thing the Deity spends all his time doing, rather than a single and unique event we approach through the stories of Jesus. “God became human” is a faith-filled characterisation of a particular human history, not primarily a theological generalisation about either divinity or humanity.
We need to be reminded of the uniqueness of how this light comes into the world, so that we may better appreciate where and how to seek it, find it, and reflect it.
So, as I prepare to retell and rehear the Christmas story again in song and prayer, word and (above all) sacrament, I pray that for you and for me, we may find in this unique history of God coming to share our earthly nature, that fruitful encounter with him, that will enable us to participate in his divine life. Happy Christmas.
The gospel for Advent Sunday (Year A – Matthew 24.36-44) is not without its problems. Indeed, in our contemporary context, the idea that the parousia – the “second coming” – is a theme used in preparation for Christmas – the “first coming” – of Christ, is itself problematic. An open-minded pentecostal friend messaged me asking about the Advent themes, and was, I think, rather surprised to hear that the traditional ones were not the “love, peace, joy, hope” of many schools’ Advent wreaths, but “death, judgement, heaven and hell”.
The emphasis, it seems to me, in the gospel, is really quite existential. If we live sub specie aeternitatis – in the shadow of eternity – that prospect is presented in Jesus’ words less as a continuous present, and more as an imminent disruption. The metaphors of this teaching point to something sudden. In some contexts, such as Noah’s, the sudden change is being prepared for by a few. In other contexts, it is entirely unexpected. Unexpectedness, suddenness – these seem to me to be the point of the metaphor expressed in “one will be taken, one will be left.”
We are not dealing with some kind of weird timetable of rapture. We are dealing with something that cannot be timetabled: the possibility that any time might be the time when God breaks into normality.
There are some differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of these texts. Matthew places them in the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Luke places them before that final week. Matthew’s analogies are of two men in a field, and two women grinding meal. Luke’s are of two men in a bed, and two women grinding meal. Matthew uses present passive verbs, Luke uses future passives. (This is one of those places where gospel interrelationships don’t meet a tidy Q paradigm.)
Whatever the precise group in view, the idea seems to be that two people are engaged in the same task, and find a different outcome. It is more likely that the one who “is taken” is the loser, and the one who “is left” who is the winner. (Dispensationalist theory notwithstanding.) To be taken by, for example, a flash flood in a wadi, a lightning strike in a storm, a plague that seems indiscriminate in its targets, all suggest that it is “being taken” that is destructive, and “being left” that is escape.
When this is paired with the language used, that becomes even more likely. The language for being left is also the language for being forgiven. Words depend on their context for their meaning, and the use of the verb “ἀφίημι – to leave, permit, forgive” is not a knock down argument. Yet the balance of probabilities suggests that, far from supporting any idea of “the rapture”, Jesus’ language is directed at readiness for change, rather than timetable for judgement.
I’ve been in a discussion today about the language of scripture. My interlocutor wanted to claim that the language of John 2 implied that the water that was changed into wine was the water of the well from which the stone jars were filled, rather than the water in the jars (John 2:1-11). And, therefore, Jesus transformed all water into the wine of the kingdom.
The basis of this claim was that the word for drawing water used in the Cana story was the same as the word for drawing water used in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. That much is true. Both narratives use the common verb “to draw” – ἀντλέω (antleõ).
Yet there is the little question of context, which, admittedly, is always more problematic in John, who delights in ambiguity and paronomasia. Words have a range of possible meanings, but to place a word in a sentence, or a series of connected sentences, is always a process of limiting the range of meanings that word may bear.
“Are you religious?” probably means something like, “do you go to church?” when the question is addressed to a lay person. “Are you religious?” when addressed to a member of the clergy signifies, “Do you belong to a religious order?” And “Are you a religious follower of #LFC?” (Victory be upon them) signifies something else again.
Words are simply not repositories of concatenated meanings. To place a word into a sentence is to limit the meanings that word can convey. Sentences restrict semantics. Context constrains meaning.
And in that Johannine sentence, and that context, it seems to me that “draw water” in all probability refers fairly clearly to drawing it from the jars, not from the wells / springs from which that water was originally taken.
I think Mark’s Christology is ambiguous because Mark knows of no other Christology than that embroiled in paradox of Jesus as the human Messiah, the coming Son of Man, and exalted Son of God, who shares in Yahweh’s throne.
I’m somewhat more inclined to think Mark’s ambiguity is more intentional than simply reflecting a paradoxical understanding of Jesus.
Notoriously Mark offers a strange rationale for parables:
And Jesus said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ (Mk 4:11-12)
One way of taking these difficult verses is to say that, for Mark, a response to Jesus depends on God creating that response in the heart of the hearer. Parable creates space for God to reveal truth, and those who are not open to God’s revelation will simply be left baffled by the parables and unable to understand them.
His riddling and ambiguous Jesus is of a piece with this understanding. Only those whose eyes God opens will be able to see who Jesus is. Mark will not give his reader a straight answer; he will only create a situation through his story which will enable (or not enable) someone to receive God’s revelation of who Jesus is.
If, as I think, Mark’s gospel does end at 16.8, then that coheres with this view. Mark will not describe an appearance of the risen Jesus. The risen Jesus can’t be narrated, he can only be encountered. The climax of the gospel comes in the personal experience that seals the revelation. Mark can only sow the seed, and ambiguity is his plough to furrow the heart and mind of his hearer.
I’m currently reading James D G Dunn’s Neither Jew nor Greek. Like the first two volumes of his Christianity in the Making project, it’s a careful and broadly conservative account of early Christian history, with this volume taking us into the second century, with Irenaeus as a kind of horizon, but the biblical books as a primary focus. (By conservative I mean both in many of his conclusions (e.g. the broad trustworthiness of Acts) but also his attachment to a traditional behind-the-text historical approach to the texts as sources.
But this morning I imagined Mark Goodacre spluttering over his cornflakes as I read this sentence:
“[T]here are no persuasive indications either that Matthew knew Luke’s Gospel or that Luke knew Matthew’s Gospel.” (p.246)
There is an unstated protasis which this sentence desperately needs: “If you are convinced of the existence of Q, then …”
Broadly speaking, there are exactly the same indications, exactly the same evidence that a) Matthew and Luke used Q, b) Luke used Matthew and c) Matthew used Luke. The difference is not in the evidence itself, but in the framework used to interpret the evidence. Only a Q-shaped framework allows Dunn to say what he says.
Now it so happens I largely agree with the heart of Dunn’s position: there is a literary source Matthew and Luke share, but there are also other oral sources, some of which they share and some of which they don’t. It may also be that there are occasions when either one of Matthew or Luke make use of their shared literary source while the other doesn’t. If there is (as I think) some sort of Q, we can have no certain knowledge of its upper or lower limits.
However, I hold this theory not because of any persuasive character of any individual piece of evidence, but because it seems to me that an untidy theory such as this makes better sense of the variegated nature of the evidence as a whole. The theories which try to produce a single explanatory model, whether an over-confident Q, the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre theory, or a version of Matthean posteriority, all seem to me too tidy for the nature of the evidence, even if I can sometimes feel the force (almost thou dost persuade me) of say, Goodacre’s Case Against Q, or Alan Garrow’s brilliant series of video presentations of the Matthew Conflator Hypothesis.
It just seems to me more than pedantry to keep a sense of what belongs to the theory that makes sense of the evidence, and what is a property of the evidence itself. The evidence is only evidence of some kind of interrelationship. But which interrelationship it is belongs to the theory. And that in the end is a judgement about what makes greatest amount of sense of the greatest amount of the evidence.
It’s like all the best detective stories, really. And it wasn’t Luke in the library with the scissors and paste.
Last week I was listening to one of the most distinguished biblical scholars of his generation talking about applying the teaching of Jesus to politics. I have to confess to being disappointed. His approach was to isolate the double love commandment, the “summary of the law” as Jesus’ central ethical principles, and then suggest that we today had to work out how to apply those principles.
I have problems with this, the first of which is that it is unexceptional almost to the point of vacuity to say that politics should practice and promote the love of neighbour, while being controversial to the point of displacing liberal democracy to say it should promote the love of God. Unfortunately the emphasis was on applying the principle of the former while neglecting the disruptive nature of the latter.
The second problem I have with it is that I seriously wonder whether the way these commands are abstracted is helpful. There’s a sense in which there’s nothing that unusual in the conversation between Jesus and the scribe in Mark (12:28-34). It belongs with the rabbinic tradition that attributes to Hillel the summary of the law as “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary.” (Matthew’s Jesus also has his own version of that summary – Matt 7:12.)
While Matthew (22:34-40) essentially re-uses Mark’s story while making the scribe more antagonistic, Luke attributes the combination of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 with Leviticus 19:18 to the teacher of the Law. It is possible to read this as Luke not seeing its attribution to Jesus as significant. It is equally possible to see it as Luke thinking his readers / hearers will be so familiar with it as Jesus’ teaching that they read / hear the story as the lawyer deliberately choosing to parrot Jesus’ teaching back to him. John, of course, has neither command, but provides a potentially more sectarian “love one another” that appears nowhere in the synoptic tradition.
A love-ethic does feature significantly in Paul and early Christianity, and appears to echo Jesus tradition in many cases. However, there’s no evidence that, for those at home with first century Jewish readings of Torah, there is anything particularly unusual or exceptional in Jesus’ appropriation of these verses as either a summary or hermeneutical key to Torah. The way in which later Christian tradition singles them out as unusual, or revolutionary, may just be the default setting of Christian anti-Judaism. Given the priority of love, that is desperately ironic.
But there’s that other thing about detaching them from the rest of Torah, or Paul’s communal practice, as “ethical principles”. It means any particular definition of love, which may or may not owe anything to the particular practices the text has historically been embedded in, can be read into it without any other controls. Abstracting love as a general principle allows it to become whatever the reader wants it to be, and Jesus’ hermeneutical key for reading Torah becomes a contemporary means for ignoring it.
If you’d asked me how common “Peace be with you” was as a greeting in the New Testament, until recently I’d have said “very”. I’ve been surprised to notice that it is instead very rare. (Incidentally the same phrase – εἰρήνη ὑμῖν – occurs even more rarely in the Greek Old Testament.)
The basic idea occurs in combination with grace in all of Paul’s letters, but the simplest form of the greeting doesn’t. And in the gospels it occurs exactly four times. It comes once at the climax of Luke’s gospel. The disciples return from the Emmaus encounter, and are discussing it with those in Jerusalem, when “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (Luke 24:36 NRSV).
The other three all occur in the same story of the risen Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in the upper room. Twice on his first appearance as he shows them the marks of his wounds, and once on the appearance to Thomas which is the climax of the account (and I would argue, the gospel). The first occurrence is in words that seem to echo Luke’s: “Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (Jn 20:19)
(I leave aside for now the interesting thought that this is one of several texts which raises questions about either the relationship of John’s and Luke’s texts, or their relationship to some shared tradition.)
What I want to suggest is that for both of them “peace”, as they present it, is seen as a consequence of the story. It is fundamentally the reason for everything that has preceded and is itself the experience and gift of the resurrected one.
If “peace” was a reasonably common greeting, as it is today in the Middle East, then there is a sense that what the gospel does is make it strange, and make it fresh. When you have journeyed with Jesus through the story that has been read, you discover the meaning of a word you have used all your life for the first time.