Friday, January 22, 2016

Commentary: Preface to Mark

"The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of God)."

My earliest memories of reading the Bible treated the four Gospels as essentially interchangeable. Jesus did a bunch of stuff, but for whatever reason only some of it appeared in this book, and other stuff appeared in this other book, and sometimes specific stuff was repeated by two or even three books, and why, I don't know, but sometimes there were even small changes that made everything more confusing, and who came up with this, because I just want to read about Jesus and this makes no sense.

Now I'm older and wiser, and have a slightly better understanding of why there are multiple books and why some 'stuff' is repeated and why other stuff isn't.  Broadly, the Gospel of Matthew gives the life of Jesus from a Jewish Messianic perspective, Luke from a Hellenic historical perspective, and John from what we might call a Christian mystical perspective.

However, despite all that, I have long considered the Gospel of Mark to be the least distinctive of the four gospels. For one, there's the notion that Mark's gospel was written earlier than the rest -- though unlike most modern scholars, I'm unconvinced by 'Markan priority' and tend to favor the traditional 'Matthean priority' hypothesis. For another, Mark's gospel is shorter than the rest, and seems the lack the same overarching theme or point of view as the others.

I'm pretty confident that my impression of Mark's gospel now is nearly as inaccurate as my impression of all four Gospels then.  But, if a misconception, it is still one that I feel the need to consciously disprove. Hence these Commentaries: by reading through the Gospel of Mark (with a Catholic young adult group) and writing my notes down after the fact, I hope to get an idea of how to read Mark and see his gospel as distinct from the rest.

The Gospel of Mark is usually ascribed to John Mark, the young cousin of the apostle Barnabas who accompanied Paul in his missionary journeys.  When Peter miraculously escaped the custody of King Herod in Acts 12, it was to the house of John Mark’s mother that he went first.

By Church tradition – and with considerable support from the early Church Fathers, including Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen) – John Mark wrote his gospel while serving as a scribe for the apostle Peter in Rome. This strikes me as rather obviously true, both from the testimony of Tradition and from the evidence of the text.

This also strikes me as providing the Gospel with a clear and overarching theme. John Mark was not a direct witness to the events of Jesus’ life, but was a scribe for one who was a more direct witness than almost any other.  The Gospel of Mark, then, is essentially Peter’s Gospel, reflecting both his perspective on the events of Jesus’ life, and his pastoral care for the Church at Rome.  Mark is a teaching gospel, a preacher’s gospel, borne from the stories Peter must have told both to Mark and to his congregation.

My Commentary on Mark 1 will follow shortly.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Commentary: Preface to Isaiah

"The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz concerning Judah and Jerusalem, which he saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jtham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, the kings of Judah."

Isaiah is ranked alongside lEzekial and Jeremiah as the "major prophets" of the Old Testament, and indeed his book of prophecy is one of the larger books in the Bible. I'm also coming to this commentary after an extended look at the book of Romans, which is generally both concise and content-rich. I will be writing a commentary on Isaiah, digesting several chapters with each published note.

In light of the differences both in length and intensity, however, my approach to this Commentary is going to be significantly more scatter-shot than previous commentaries. Obviously, the best way to understand Scripture is the direct route: read Scripture itself. My commentaries are designed to offer notes on particularly noteworthy elements of the reading. In this case, most of the content that I would present or discuss is presented and discussed in the text itself, making additional commentary superfluous. There remain, however a number of particularly important passages, as well intriguing side-notes and tangential thoughts. It is there that I will find the subject for this next series of note.

When I first encountered the prophets, they all struck me as alike. As I've grown more familiar with them, so the flavors of each have become more clearly defined. I still struggle, but it gets easier. It's hard to convey the subtle distinctions, however, so I will more or less restrain myself to speak of the words, verses, and chapters themselves.

Enjoy the commentaries!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 16

I commend to you our sister Phoebe... that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you.

Romans 16:1-15 ~~ Paul offers greetings to various individuals known to him personally. Most of the names are unfamiliar to us, though some of them are referenced elsewhere. Also note the number of female names in the list.

Romans 16:3-4 ~~ Prisca and Aquila are referenced in Acts 18, worked with Paul as tent-makers, and apparently risked their own necks to save Paul's life.

Romans 16:5 ~~ "Epaenetus... who is the first convert to Christ from Asia." Whoa. Nice credentials.

Romans 16:6 ~~ "Mary, who has worked hard for you." There are six other people known by that name in the New Testament; nothing is known about this Mary beside this one cryptic reference.

Romans 16:17 ~~ Paul exhorts the Romans to be wary against those who teach against the apostolic teaching and would lead them astray.

Romans 16:18 ~~ Paul is specifically addressing the heretics in Rome that were slaves to their appetites and who deceived themselves and others with smooth rhetoric.

Romans 16:19 ~~ Rome was apparently famed for their obedience to the apostolic tradition.

Romans 16:20 ~~ Here again, Paul concludes the letter. See also 15:33, 16:24 and 16:27.

Romans 16:21-22 ~~ Paul sends greetings from his companions, including a personal salutation from his scribe Tertius.

Romans 16:25-27 ~~ Here at last Paul offers a brief and impromptu doxology. "To Him... be the glory forever." Paul is awesome, and here ends his epistle to the Romans.

Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets according to the commandment of the eternal God has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 15

Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength, and not just please ourselves.

Romans 15:1 ~~ Those who are strong are to be self-denying out of consideration for the weak.

Romans 15:2-3 ~~ "Each is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification." Paul draws an immediate comparison to Christ: God, being stronger than us, takes our weakness upon Himself and acts for our edification and not solely for His own glory.

Romans 15:4 ~~ "For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction that through perseverance and the encouragement of Scriptures we might have hope." Interesting transition from "even Christ did not please Himself" to this thought, on the value of Scripture.

Romans 15:5-6 ~~ "Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement" [that is, the God who gave the Scriptures] "grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." God is Truth, Truth is one, and He intends for us to be of one mind. The unity and catholicity of the Church is absolutely essential.

Romans 15:7 ~~ "Therefore accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God." See also the section of the Lord's Prayer: "And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Romans 15:8-9 ~~ "Christ has become a servant to the circumcision" (that is, the Jews) "on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers, and [a servant] for the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy." Here's another element in the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles: God is faithful to the Jews for the sake of His truth, and to the Gentiles for the sake of His mercy.

Romans 15:9-12 ~~ Paul presents four passages on God's desire and outreach to the Gentiles, from Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalms 18:49 and 117:1, and Isaiah 11:10.

Romans 15:13 ~~ Paul launches a brief impromptu blessing as the epistle winds down. Lots of good and meaningful words here. I'm rather struck by the multiple endings that Romans contains: see also 15:33, 16:20, 16:24, and 16:27.

Romans 15:14 ~~ Paul speaks of three traits he saw in the Roman Church: that they were full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and (thus?) able to admonish one another. I think this is a particularly interesting formulation: in order to admonish (to correct and to teach), we must be filled with both a profound desire for the good and a profound wisdom, or understanding of the good.

Romans 15:15-16 ~~ Paul speaks of "the grace that was given me from God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit." This strikes me as a pretty direct statement treating the ordination of priests as a legitimate sacrament (sacrament being a vessel of special grace from God).

Romans 15:17-19 ~~ Paul has reason to boast: what God had accomplished through Him among the Gentiles, and the obedience he inspired among them by word and deed, in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit.

Romans 15:20-21 ~~ Paul intended to preach specifically where the name and gospel of Christ had not yet been heard.

Romans 15:22-25 ~~ Other obligations intervened, but Paul had long intended to take a trip to Spain and had hoped to stay in Rome during the trip.

Romans 15:25-28 ~~ Paul was sent to Jerusalem with an offering from Macedonia and Achaia. The Gentiles were indebted to the Jews to minister to them in materials things as they shared in spiritual things.

Romans 15:30-32 ~~ Paul asks the Romans to strive with him in prayer for (1) his rescue from "the disobedient," which we presume to be the unsaved Jews, and (2) his acceptance among the saints in the church at Jerusalem.

Romans 15:33 ~~ Paul offers an impromptu blessing to end the letter... again. He promptly continues with the personal greetings to actually conclude the letter.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 14

Now, accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.

Romans 14:1 ~~ This is a fantastic summary both of the chapter and of the principle "in non-essentials, liberty."

Romans 14:2 ~~ "One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only." We might reference Acts 10:15, in which Peter receives a vision confirming the cleanliness of foods previously considered unclean. In this case, "weakness" refers to doctrinal confusion and a lack of understanding, specifically regarding the doctrine of freedom (cf. Romans 6, Galatians 5).

Romans 14:3 ~~ "The one who eats" (that is, the one with knowledge and with liberty) "is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat"(without knowledge but with a clear conscience) "is not to judge the one who eats." The danger for those who act with liberty is that they might look upon others as more legalistic and therefore less grace-filled than they are; the danger for those who act with conscience is that they might look upon the practices of others as almost pagan and therefore less Christian than they are. The one feels contempt, the other judgment, yet "God has accepted" them both.

Romans 14:4 ~~ "Who are you to judge the servants of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand for the Lord is able to make him stand." We are judged and accepted by God. If we judge others, we make ourselves out to be Lords over one another, and arrogate the dignity of His judgment seat.

Roman 14:5 ~~ "One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind." Paul certainly has an opinion on many of these subjects, but he is pressing the more important point: when it's not essential, do not judge or view others with contempt. Also note "each person must be fully convinced" -- intention plays a critical role in moral responsibility.

Romans 14:6-8 ~~ In life and death, so long as we remain in God, we belong to God and are saved by Him.

Romans 14:7-9 ~~ We live or die in Christ. Christ lived and died for precisely this reason, that He might be the Lord of the living and the dead (cf. 6:3-11).

Romans 14:10-12 ~~ Why judge or regard with contempt? (Cf. verse 3, above). Each is judged before God (cf. 2:14-16).

Romans 14:13 ~~ "Therefore, let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this--not to put an obstacle or stumbling block in a brother's way!" Fantastic verse.

Romans 14:14 ~~ "I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself" (that is, no thing is intrinsically evil -- the physical world is intrinsically good); "but to him who thinks anything is unclean, to him it is unclean." Uncleanliness is defined as something that it would be sinful or defiling to partake in. By the conviction that a thing would be sinful to do, the act of doing it would be a deliberation rebellion against one's own conscience and therefore against God. It is in our convictions and our intentions that cleanliness or uncleanliness is found.

Romans 14:15 ~~ "For if by food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love." Do not act on your own Christian liberty is that would hurt or hamper others, for love trumps liberty.

Romans 14:16 ~~ It's ironic that this verse begins "therefore," even though it seems to qualify or mitigate the impact of previous verses. "Therefore, do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil." This is a big deal for Paul. God made the world and called it good, and to speak of this good Creation as though it were something evil is akin to blasphemy.

Romans 14:16-17 ~~ If others are convinced that partaking of certain foods is wrong, then we should not partake of those foods. But, in the same instant and with the same breath, we ought to defend our liberty to partake and, more importantly, defend the goodness of the food itself. We should not act in a way that hurts others, but it is necessary to defend (with our words) what we cannot enjoy (with our deeds). Above all, act in love, in a knowing and cognizant love so the kingdom of God might enjoy peace.

Romans 14:18 ~~ "For he who in this way [honoring each other with Christian liberty] serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men."

Romans 14:20 ~~ Here is the corollary to Romans 14:14. "Nothing is unclean in itself" (v. 14), "all things indeed are clean" (v. 20), "but to him who thinks anything is unclean, to him it is unclean" (v. 14) and also "they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense" (v. 20). We must be pure not only before our own conscience, but in light of the consciences and judgments of others. No pressure.

Romans 14:22-23 ~~ Here is an effective summary statement. "The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves." If we eat without faith, or doubt in our Christian liberty, we are condemned. But that does not deny the fact of our Christian liberty: we are slaves to sin no longer, but free to partake of God's goodness.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 13

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God.

Romans 13:1-6 ~~ Now this is a problematic section. Just as submission to each other is treated as a necessity of our faith and mutual love in Ephesians 5:21-31, so these verses treat our subjection to the government as mandatory. However, this apparently unequivocal command is couched in language that gives some leeway for later philosophers and statesmen. Yet it remains incredibly problematic, even given my own political predilections.

Romans 13:1 ~~ Two points. First, note that the exhortation is "to be in subjection" to the governing authorities. This will be expanded in v. 7, but I think it's important to point out that this "subjection" is distinct from total and unwavering obedience. Second, note that the initial exhortation is grounded in the next part of the verse: "for there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained by God" (KJV). The rulers and authorities are defined explicitly in the context of God's justice.

Romans 13:2 ~~ "Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God...." Here again, rulers stand as the agents of God's own authority.

Romans 13:3-4 ~~ "For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good." Here again, rulers appear almost in persona Dei, just as priests speak in persona Christi. The governing authorities exist as "a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil." But there is the crux of the matter: how should we respond when rulers fail to act in light of Christ? What is they fail to uphold justice? What if they defy it, and become "a cause of fear for good behavior"?

Romans 13:5-6 ~~ "Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience' sake." The wrath refers the judgment we would incur by defying God's chosen agents of justice; the conscience refers to the duty and love we bear to God, and therefore the fidelity we owe to His ministers. Indeed it is for conscience' sake that we pay taxes: it is the duty we owe them, to support their labors.

Romans 13:7 ~~ "Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due, custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor." As I pointed out above, it should be noted that obedience is conspicuously absent from this list. "Subjection" in Romans 13:1 is distinct from "submission" in Ephesians 5. At the same time, I have to point out what an excellent general exhortation this verse is. "Render to all what is due them." It's also an effective transition into the next series of exhortations.

Romans 13:8-9 ~~ "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves the other fulfills the law." Good verse, with very interesting phrasing. After "render to all what is due them," Paul seems to encourage his fellow Christians to owe little that must be rendered. Indeed, since the only exception is "to love one another" and love is by nature a grace, Paul seems to be encouraging Christians to owe nothing to one another, that nothing must be rendered as a duty.

Romans 13:10 ~~ "Love works no evil to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law." I honestly don't know what to make of this verse. The previous verses serve as antecedents to the same conclusion, but this verse seems to be framed as a syllogism on its own. Technically, this verse is an enthymeme, with an omitted major premise: "if X works no evil to a neighbor, X is the fulfillment of the law." That's what disconcerts me: I don't know where Paul derived this major premise, and I'm not sure how well it fits with the rest of his (or my own) theology.

Romans 13:11-13 ~~ In addition to God's wrath and our own conscience, eschatology is the third reason for acting rightly: for we know that our salvation approaches daily.

Romans 13:14 ~~ "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ," and make no provision for sin. That sounds easy, right?

Romans 13 is one of a few extended passages in the New Testament that speaks of the relationship between the Church and the state or "governing authorities" (1 Peter 2:13-14 is another). It is problematic for the same reason it is so easily set aside: Paul treats authority almost as a Platonic Form, a perfect and uncorrupted manifestation of the divine Ideal of justice. I imagine we are all cynical enough to laugh at this image, and wonder where Paul got the idea that such untainted perfection was ever the case. But I hope we are historically minded enough to not laugh too long, and I suspect we won't if we remember that Paul was born and raised a Jew. He was a low-class citizen in a lower-class region, and the Romans were not terribly fond of the early Christians. Paul was beaten many times, imprisoned many times, yet he still manages to speak of the authorities as though they acted for the cause of justice. What do we do with that information, I wonder? How do we cope with the knowledge that Paul spoke (and indeed, spoke infallibly, for this is Scripture) in exhorting his fellow Christians to be in subjection to the governing authorities, even though those very authorities were persecuting the people of God?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Job as Myth

In a recent Facebook conversation on how to read the Bible, I argued that Scriptures must be interpreted in light of the literary genre of any given text. These genres span everything from the highly historical records (such as genealogies) that recur throughout the Old Testament, to the highly symbolic "apocalypse" genre that characterizes the book of Revelation.

As part of this argument, I noted that "the book of Job is an extended parable, wrestling with the problem of evil and offering possible resolutions." I asserted that it should be considered mythic in the literary sense, and that its nature was essentially fictional.  I was asked about this assertion, and here was my explanation and defense.

First, the setting is introduced in a cursory (nearly non-existent) manner. All we know of Job is that he was "of the land of Uz" and "one of the richest men in the east." This strikes me as fairly typical of Ancient Near Eastern story-telling technique, in which a place name would be cited to give the myth a faux-realistic edge. "One Thousand and One Nights" (the famous tales of Scheherazade) offers many instances of this technique in action. The dearth of detail in grounding the narrative in a concrete setting can be contrasted with the contextual riches of more historical works like 1 Samuel, which introduces nearly every character with geographic, cultural, and even genealogical information.

Second, the plot is pretty evidently mythic in nature. The prologue sets up Job as a good man blessed with all manner of riches and untroubled by fickle Fortune. The cut-scene to a heavenly courtroom, and the dialogue between Satan and God, introduces a tension or conflict that does not arise organically from the prologue. We get the impression of a deus ex machina, a plot contrivance to interrupt Job's happy life and set up the remainder of the book.

Third, the intent of the book is not history, but theodicy. This is reflected in the style. The vast majority of the book is a theological discussion, punctuated by events that are described solely in order to introduce the next cycle of monologues. Indeed, the narrative pretty consistently violates the dictum "show, don't tell." In sharp contrast with the historical books, the book of Job is primarily invested in neither the events nor the characters, but rather the ideas under discussion.

Fifth, even the characters sound like archetypes. Job's three friends are not introduced as historical figures, nor even given the dignity of being literary characters with some degree of personality. They appear in isolation, only identified by a name (
Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar) and a place (respectively, Teman, Shuah, and Naamah). They are not characters so much as plot devices: each 'individual' advances a particular understanding of theodicy, a particular argument for the goodness of God in the face of an evil world. Only Job, being the main character, is given any depth of characterization or any human pathos. The only other character with some semblance of personality would be Elihu the Buzite. Elihu, a young man who appears near the end of the book, serves in a sort of semi-prophetic capacity, resolving the earlier dispute to the best of human wisdom, and prefacing the appearance of God Himself coming in a cloud.

Sixth and finally, the literary style and structure of Job speaks to it being a creative piece, not a work of historiography. It begins and ends with a prose prologue and epilogue, while the main text is in the form of a didactic poem. Thus I conclude it is wisdom literature, not history.

There are no doubt more arguments to be raised, and (no doubt) many possible counterarguments I'm not considering. Do you have any thoughts or responses?