Scripture notes – Saints Peter and Paul – 30th June 2019

These Apostles have long been seen as the two most important leaders of the early Church. Peter is listed in three gospels as the first called of the disciples, and always appears at the top of the list of the ‘Twelve’. St Paul received a visionary call after the resurrection of Christ, and took a special role as the ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’. Both of them were martyred in Rome. Continue reading Scripture notes – Saints Peter and Paul – 30th June 2019

Scripture notes – The Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), C – 23rd June 2019

This feast which some may remember as ‘Corpus Christi’ has been renamed since the congregation now is offered the Wine as well as the Bread of the Eucharist. The readings bring in different aspects of the ‘real presence’ of Jesus and what it means for our lives. Continue reading Scripture notes – The Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), C – 23rd June 2019

Introducing the Gospel of Luke

Luke is the ‘most’ gospel in several ways. It is the longest of the four. It is also the only Gospel which has a ‘sequel’, as Luke also wrote The Acts of the Apostles telling of the early work of the Church. This means that Luke is the author of more than one-fourth of the New Testament. His writing is of the highest literary quality in the New Testament, employing a careful use of the Greek language and adapting it to the various styles that suit each section. (This is hard to pick up in translations so scholar’s notes help.) Continue reading Introducing the Gospel of Luke

A Brief Introduction to the Gospel of Mark

In the three-year cycle of Gospels read at Mass, Year B is Mark, the shortest of the four gospels. After reading the introductions in the dozen commentaries at hand with all their differences, I did not feel like writing even a ‘brief ‘one. Yet some background is useful for those who come to the book fresh, or have forgotten details from the last Year B. What Mark seems to call for is – just read Mark. The whole Gospel can be gone through in one sitting, and that is something I recommend doing sometime during this liturgical year. Get your sense of what Mark set out to do, what picture he paints of Jesus. Continue reading A Brief Introduction to the Gospel of Mark

A brief Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew

In Year A of the liturgical season, the gospel readings at mass highlight Matthew, the first book in the New Testament as we find it now. Since the liturgy can present only short selections, an overview of the book itself and what is found in current scholarship about its background, the author and the meaning, can be helpful for a fuller understanding. Some of this will be taken up in the weekly notes I make available, but here is an overview. Continue reading A brief Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew

Mercy in the Bible

‘In the name of God, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate.’

Although we will be considering only the Hebrew and Christian Bible, I have taken these lines from the first words of the Qur’an, because as Pope Francis wrote in his Bull opening the Year of Mercy: ‘There is an aspect of mercy that goes beyond the confines of the church. It connects us with Judaism and Islam…. I trust that this year of Mercy will foster an encounter with these and other noble religious traditions.’ The Jubilee Year is one of openness to all. Continue reading Mercy in the Bible

Scripture Reflections – Reading John

John is the only Gospel that does not have a year of its own; selections are heard in all three years, but especially in Year B. Mark is the shortest of the four, leaving more Sundays to be filled out. As Mark is now thought to be the first written, John is the last, and is a result of a long reflection on the events of Christ’s life and his teaching. There is evidence in the work suggesting it has been edited over a period of time, perhaps more than once. The characteristic style of the Gospel is found throughout and some speak of a ‘Johannine school’ or community sharing the ideas of the first writer. (The three Letters of John in the New Testament are in a different style, but have a similar vocabulary with the Gospel.)

Nicholas King comments: ‘As soon as you open John’s Gospel you are aware that you are breathing a different air from that which you encountered in Matthew, Mark and Luke…. My sense of it is that it is a journey into the mystery of who Jesus is, inviting us ever deeper, as the story unfolds.’ John repays careful study and prayerful reflection. ‘The reader will do well to remember that this is a very rich Gospel, whose meaning emerges slowly, over a lifetime of reading.’ Since we have short selections from the Gospel, I would urge you to find some time, maybe as part of Lent, to spend with this writer.

It is the one of the four that best shows Jesus as the Son of God existing from eternity – this is stressed in the opening words. Jesus shows a majesty in this Gospel with less emphasis on his humanity – in contrast with Mark who does not hesitate to show human limitations of Jesus during his ministry. The author always has the resurrected Christ in mind, and projects this back into the life of Jesus.

There is no clear agreement among scholars as to who ‘John’ was and where the Gospel was written. The early Church writers thought he was John the son of Zebedee, but there are reasons this seems unlikely. As it happens, that John is never named in the Gospel, although ‘sons of Zebedee’ are mentioned in the last chapter, which looks like an addition. A ‘John the Elder’ was also known in the early Church but we know little about him either.

One aspect of the Gospel is that it includes the reflections of the Evangelist, but since the Greek manuscripts do not have punctuation marks, it is sometimes a guess when the words of Jesus blend into that of the author. It is written with a limited vocabulary but in very good Greek. Certain words/ideas have prominence, such as light and darkness, life/eternal life. John speaks much of ‘Signs’ – and sees the miracles of Jesus as having significance for telling who he is. Jesus saying ‘I am’ is an expression rare in the other Gospels, but often appears in John, sometimes symbolically, (I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Bread of Life) but also as an absolute: ‘Before Abraham came to exist, I AM’. This picks the meaning of God’s special name in the Old Testament – ‘I am who I am’.

John makes much use of irony, often something will be said which is shown to have a deeper meaning. Misunderstanding is used frequently as a way of opening out Jesus’ teaching. In dialogues, the person will take the ‘ordinary’ meaning of a word (as Nicodemus on ‘being reborn’) and Jesus will then draw out the deeper meaning (as not from the mother’s womb but ‘born from above’).

Characters are well drawn, and John excels in dramatic scenes. Many of these are long, which makes them harder to use in a liturgical setting. Characters may have both a historic identity as well carry symbolic meanings. One of these is ‘the Mother of Jesus’ – who is never given the name Mary, but appears in two sections related to the ‘hour’ of Jesus’ glory. One character has caused much puzzlement: ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. Various identities have been suggested, the earliest being John son of Zebedee, and more recent suggestions include a woman, Mary Magdalene. The ‘Beloved Disciple’ is the one who has the clearest vision about Jesus in the Gospel, and this shows the possiblity he/she represents the ‘ideal disciple’ and could be entirely symbolic. This disciple helps the reader penetrate more deeply into the meaning of Jesus’ identity and ministry.

Women have important roles in John, in addition to his Mother and Mary Magdalene, there is the unnamed Samaritan woman who carries on a theological discourse with Jesus at Jacob’s well (Chapter 4) and the two sisters of Lazarus, Martha also being led in dialogue to understand Jesus’ power (Chapter 11).

In John, Jesus speaks often in long ‘discourses’ explaining aspects of his life and the meaning of it. (The Bread of Life in Chapter 6 is one example.) There are two chapters at the Last Supper which give what might be called Jesus’ ‘last will and testament’. Because of the length and the complexity of these discourses, like the dramatic scenes they do not fit easily into the usual space of the liturgical gospels. An exception is the Passion and last days of Jesus life. John’s account is given ‘pride of place’ on Good Friday, and his resurrection stories feature in the readings of Easter time.

One problem in John is the use of the term ‘the Jews’ for Jesus’ opponents, where the other three gospels have the historical accuracy of ‘scribes, Pharisees and high priest.’ John treating ‘the Jews’ as separate from Jesus and his disciples has come into the gospel from the later time when the Christians had separated from the synagogue and when there was opposition felt on both sides. Of course Jesus and his disciples were ethnically Jews as much as the temple authorities. Biblical scholars emphasise that John’s term does not justify any prejudice against the Jews of our time – something all the more important at the present with so much violence in many places against people of differing religions.

Because of the complexity of John, commentaries can be very helpful, but the longer ones require some dedicated study. I will be using especially in my notes, what has been called the ‘gold standard’ commentary, two volumes of Raymond E. Brown. Recently I found Written That You May Believe by Sandra M. Schneiders, with whom I had the privilege of studying when I did my MA in the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California. This book has the added advantage of giving a good introduction to feminist biblical insights. There are a variety of other commentaries of differing lengths. For a simple guide to John, I would recommend The New Testament Freshly Translated by Nicholas King, quoted above. He gives short but useful notes to each section.

The great focus in John is on the union that disciples have with Jesus, and as well, the Father and the Spirit. This is much clearer in this Gospel than in the other three. It appears in various ways, from the opening of ‘dwelt among us’ and especially in the ‘last discourse’ which John sets the night before Jesus’ death. This has made it an important message for all Christians and one to read on our own in all the liturgical Years – A, B and C. May you find it rewarding!

Joan Griffith, 2015

The four animals of the Apocalypse

The final book of the New Testament whose title in Greek means ‘unveiling’ is written in a genre popular at the time not easily understood today. It uses many symbolic images, some are hard to visualize, and better taken as directed to the mind rather than the eye. One example of this are the four ‘living creatures’ or ‘animals’ first mentioned in 4:7-9 (and later in 7:11, read on All Saints.) They occur in a ‘vision’ of heaven pictured as a regal court, with God on a throne. God is not described directly as beyond human power to express (John 1:18) but the details give a sense of awe and power. He takes natural examples to illustrate supernatural reality. The four creatures around the throne are such hints. They are ‘covered by eyes, before and behind’ – perhaps showing that nothing is hidden from God. The first had a face like a lion, the second like an ox, the third a human face, and the fourth a flying eagle. They each had six wings, and continually sang: ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’

John, the author of the book, does not explain the animals any further, nor give a hint of what they symbolize. I see as one possibility: the lion – which we still call King of Beasts – as the fullness of power, while the strong ox is power at the service of humans. The eagle in its free flight joins earth to ‘heaven’. The man may represent intelligence. These features could be aspects of God as experienced in relationship to humanity. But like all poetry, they are more evocative than explained.

As so much in the Apocalypse, there are echoes or references to books in the Old Testament. God on his throne, the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ and six winged ‘seraphim’ are in Isaiah’s ‘inaugural vision’, 6:21-3. In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, which has a lot of apocalyptic passages, his inaugural vision has a more elaborate picture of very similar creatures to John’s, with the wings and eyes and four different faces but with many other features as well. These occur in 1:4-21 and are said to be the ‘chariot’ of God. If you look up this passage, prepare to be confused! The grammar itself is not clear, and the commentator Lawrence Boadt, CSP, suggests the confusion may have been meant to suggest these four are in motion and that may mean not easily discerned. They are all controlled in movement by the One in this strange vehicle.

However bizarre they to moderns, these descriptions would have had some familiarity to people of that time. Winged human headed bulls and lions were huge statues of guardian demigods before the Babylonian/Assyrian temples. Carved reliefs also show eagle headed figures, and wings are common. (Examples of all these may be seen in the British Museum, and some online.) The Hebrews adopted winged creatures as ‘cherubim’ and they were carved for the Ark of the Covenant in the Jerusalem Temple (Exodus 37:7-9). (Our more familiar ‘angels’ are mild descendants of these.) The adapted pagan creatures are, however, not considered by the Hebrews as having supernatural powers of their own; rather they are shown at the service of the one true and truly powerful God.

The four creatures have a later life, as they were used by early Christians as symbols of the four evangelists, based on how each opened his Gospel. Matthew is the man, for he begins with the human genealogy of Jesus. Mark is the lion, for he starts with John the Baptist preaching (‘roaring’?) in wilderness. Luke begins in the Temple, and as the ox was used in sacrifices that represents him. John, whose Prologue starts in ‘the beginning’ with Jesus the ‘Word’ of God, ‘soars’ above the earth as an eagle. These ‘attributes’ have been a gift to artists through the ages. (Wikipedia has some examples.)

Joan Griffith