They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Translation: And they go into Capernaum, and immediately the sabbaths, he went into the synagogue (and) was teaching. And they were shocked at his teaching, for he was teaching them as having power and not as the scribes. And immediately, there was in their synagogue a man in an uncleansed spirit and he cried out, saying, "What are you to us, Jesus of Nazareth? You came to destroy us. I know you, who you are, the holy one of God." And Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Shut up and come out of him!" And the uncleansed spirit tore him apart, and calling out a loud voice, came out of him. And all were astounded so that they discussed to themselves, saying, "What is this? A new teaching, with power, and he commands the uncleansed spirits and they obey him." And immediately, the report of him went everywhere into the whole surrounding area of Galilee.
We are only at verse 21, still very early in Mark's gospel. After leaving the wilderness, the first thing Jesus did was begin to assemble a community. The next thing he did was to engage the religious power.
Teaching with authority: The word is exousian--he teaches with power! Jesus has it, and the scribes do not. Right off the bat, the scribes--the "lawyers" of religious power--are put down, their authority suspect. (In 3:22, Mark will associate the scribes directly with Temple power in Jerusalem.)
We are not told the actual content of Jesus' teaching, but whatever it was, it "shocked" and "amazed" those who were present. (The "they" is indefinite. It probably means the people present at the synagogue that day.)
The first demon in Mark's gospel pops up in church: Mark employs the "sandwich technique" at several points in his gospel. He tells a story within a story, you might say, and each story is a commentary on the other.
That's what he does here. The episode begins and ends on the question of authority and teaching, and, inbetween, we meet the "uncleansed spirit."
Mark's gospel is awash in the demonic. After Jesus' confrontation with Satan himself (1:13), the demonic first makes a geographically-specific appearance within the precincts of religion. Note that the "uncleansed spirit" pops up in "their synagogue."
In People of the Lie, Scott Peck said that the people of the world recoil from evil whenever they see it directly. This is why evil likes to disguise itself, and what better way for evil to disguise itself than to hide under the good? It is not at all surprising that Jesus would encounter a demon in church. It's a perfect place for evil to hide.
To sum up thus far, Jesus has purposefully entered the place of scribal authority and directly confronted it. In response, the demonic rallies to defend itself. Organized religion is presented as hosting a demonic power, one which, somewhat surprisingly, recognizes Jesus immediately.
"You came to destroy us": The man "in an unclean spirit" cried out: Ti hamin kai soi, Iesou Nazarene!--literally: "What are you to us?" or "Why do you meddle with us?" You are merely "of Nazareth." You are a nobody. The "uncleansed spirit's" tone is dismissive.
Not surprisingly, the demon is lying. His opening remark quickly turns out to be false bravado because the next statement reveals fear on the part of the demonic. "You came to destroy us," they say. Correctamundo.
In a last ditch effort to re-establish control, the "man in an uncleansed spirit" says, "I know you, who you are, the holy one of God." Knowing and identifying is a way of trying to exert mastery. It is why Moses asked for God's name. If a person knew the name of another entity, they felt they could exert some influence through the use of the name--(which is why the Lord God gave Moses a name that we're still trying to figure out).
With one exception, no human being in Mark's gospel ever gets Jesus' identity quite right. The reason is because Mark wants the reader to know the whole story first. You can't know who Jesus is unless you see him as the Crucified, which is why the only human statement of Jesus' identity that is allowed to stand uncontested in Mark's gospel is the statement of the Roman centurion at his death: "Truly, this man was God's son (15:39)."
Nevertheless, though human beings don't know who Jesus is, the demonic realm certainly does. Yes, he is the "holy one of God" and, yes, he has come to destroy them. Whatever else one might say about the demonic, it correctly discerns a true threat.
Jesus rebuked the man and said, "Shut up and come out of him!" ("Rebuked" is a common word in Jewish exorcisms. See Zech 3:2, Ps 80:16. "Shut up" is phimoo, which is also the word Jesus uses to calm the storm in 4:39.)
The reaction is violent. The "uncleansed spirit" tore the man apart. The word is sparaxen, which means "tore apart, mangled, convulsed, rent in pieces." The violence at the heart of religious power is exposed. But Jesus' power is stronger, which Mark makes clear by saying that the spirit "came out out of him."
Mark then continues on the subject of authority and teaching. "All were astounded" and they discuss the question among themselves. They don't know exactly what has happened--"What is this?"--but they now call it a "new teaching," one with, again, authority and power. "He commands the uncleansed spirits and they obey him."
"And immediately, the report of him went everywhere into the whole surrounding area of Galilee." If you were going to circulate news in the region of Galilee in the first century, Capernaum would likely have been the best place from which to do it. The town was one of the largest in the region and had the biggest harbor. Do something in Capernaum and news could travel fast.
Jesus is beginning to establish his movement, and making some waves. He is striking quickly.
Image: Healing of the demoniac in the synagogue, James Tissot
Borg wrote 21 books. I've often recommended his books, especially The Heart of Christianity. His two recent book with John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas and The First Paul, shed new light on both subjects.
Borg was raised as a Lutheran in North Dakota. Later in life, he became an Episcopalian. (His wife is an Episcopal priest.) Borg always claimed his Lutheran heritage. When he asked how many Lutherans were at a recent conference, he said, "I have half my hand up."
Sometimes, I regret to say, the Lutherans were a negative example. He still remembered the parish pastor from his youth who pronounced the forgiveness of sins all the while shaking his finger at the congregation. This had the effect of making the good news feel not-so-good.
Borg's question was how to interpret the Christian faith for people living the modern world. This is the task of modern theology, which Marcus Borg understood, and why he chose that task for his life's work. Dietrich Bonhoeffer tried to do the same, as did Teilhard de Chardin and several others.
I'm honored to have been acquainted with him and blessed to have heard him speak on a number of occasions. He was a gentle and learned man of unfailing graciousness who made an immense contribution to both church and world. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.
Romero has recently been declared a "martyr", which means that he only needs one more miracle to qualify. Normally, two miracles are needed, but the category of "martyr" counts for one of them.
The ruling by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints was unanimous. Reports RNS:
Romero’s cause was started nearly two decades ago when St. John Paul II gave him the title of Servant of God in 1997. But his case never advanced amid lingering Vatican suspicion of Liberation Theology, an economically progressive approach to Catholicism that flourished under Romero and was suppressed by both John Paul and Benedict XVI.
Pope Francis, the first pontiff elected from Latin America, reopened Romero’s cause soon after his 2013 election, and is said to be supportive of Romero’s sainthood. Last year, the current archbishop of El Salvador, Jose Luis Escobar Alas, and three other bishops met with the pope and said all Salvadoran bishops support Romero’s canonization.
“To enter the United States from the border with Mexico would be a beautiful thing, as a sign of brotherhood and of help to the immigrants,” said Pope Francis, expressing some regret that his upcoming visit to the United States will be too short to accomodate a trip to the border.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.' 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Translation: But with the delivering over of John, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the good news of God and saying, "The time has been fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Turn and 'faith' in the good news."
And moving alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Come after me and I will make you to be fishers of people." And immediately, letting go the nets, they followed him. And stepping a little forward, he saw James son of Zebedee and John his brother in the boat restoring the nets. Immediately, he called them and, letting go their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired hands, they went after him.
Background and situation: We are only 13 verses into Mark's gospel. Thus far, Mark has introduced John the Baptist, told of the baptism of Jesus and the voice from heaven proclaiming him "beloved son," and, in only one verse, told of his subsequent temptation in the wilderness.
Our lection begins with the "delivering over" of John the Baptist. The same verb would be used later in Mark to describe the arrest of Jesus. We are not even half-way through the first chapter of Mark and, already, a shadow hangs over the story--the shadow of institutional violence.
Galilee: Following John's arrest, Jesus, a Galilean, goes "into Galilee." In the first 15 verses of Mark's gospel, Jesus is presented as being both of Galilee and going into Galilee. Mark ties Jesus firmly to his home region. The Jesus movement would later be widely known as a Galilean one.
For its time, Galilee was "multicultural." It had a significant gentile population, owing mostly to Greek and Roman settlements following their respective conquests. Gifts of land in conquered territories would be given to high-ranking soldiers and major politicians--the so-called "spoils of war."
The vast majority of the indigenous native population was poor. Agriculture and fishing were the two major "industries" and workers in both lived at a bare subsistence level.
The region of Galilee was looked down upon by the "sophisticated" of Jerusalem. Galileans were "hicks from the sticks." This attitude no doubt had some effect in alienating Galileans from their co-religionists in the south.
Adding to that alienation was the physical geography of Galilee. It was separated from Judea--the region of Jerualem--by Samaria, which lay between the two, a land which was avoided by both Galilean and Judean.
In addition, the land of Galilee was on at least one major and ancient trade route, whereas the city of Jerusalem was not. Galilee, therefore, had been exposed to various foreign influences through foreign traders moving through the region. (The concept of a general resurrection, for example, is believed to have "leaked" into Israel from Persia through Galilee in the fifth century B.C.) Jerusalem, on the other hand, tended to be more insular and conservative.
All these influences--poverty, alienation, exposure to "new ideas"--may have contributed to a Galilean "rebellious streak." Before Jesus, the only Galilean to be widely known was Judas the Galilean who had led a rebellion against the census of Quirinius in 6 BC. (The zealots are believed to have emerged out of the revolt led by Judas.) It was among these Galileans--the poor, the alienated, the "rebellious"--that the Jesus movement first began.
First words: In any great work of literature, the first words of the main character have special weight. Jesus' first sentence in Mark is: "The time has been fulfilled." The word for "time" here is kairos, which means the special moment, the breaking in of God, "God's time." NRSV has "is fulfilled," though the verb peplerotai is perfect passive and should be translated "has been fulfilled." "The kingdom of God has come near" is likely based in a semiticism which means "arrived."
The other half of Jesus' introductory speech is an exhortation to "turn and 'faith' in the good news." The Greek word metanoiete is a second person plural imperative--"you-all turn." (The overwhelming majority of "you"-words in the New Testament are you-plural. They are addressed to many, not just individuals.)
Metanoia, of course, does not mean feeling sorry for getting caught and then crying your eyes out at what a jerk you've been. It is not, in other words, a word that is primarily about emotions, but more about action. It means "turning"--the literal meaning of the word--and moving in a new direction.
The direction toward which Jesus points and leads is the "kingdom of God." The "way" (1:2-3) of this kingdom, its modus operandi, will be exhibited and given meaning by Jesus as we move through Mark's gospel.
"Believe" is a poor translation of pisteuete. Contrary to popular belief, the word does not mean "intellectual assent" or something like "theological agreement." It should be understood as "faith-as-a-verb." (Using faith as a verb sounds funny in English which is how we got in the bad habit of translating pisteuein as "believe.") The word should be thought of as meaning "radical trust"--trusting with all of who we are.
"Good news" is euaggelion, a word which was more frequently used, in the world of that time, to refer to the great acts of Caesar. "Euaggelion! Good news! Caesar is victorious in Gaul!" In Mark, the "good news" has nothing to do with Caesar, and everything to do with Jesus. The specific content of this "good news" has yet to be described. Whatever it will prove to be, it has arrived in Jesus.
Forming the New Community: Moving "alongside" the Sea of Galilee, Jesus sees Simon and Andrew, two brothers involved in the fishing business.
The fishing business in first century Galilee was not a free-enterprise system. The Sea of Galilee belonged to Caesar. (The Sea of Galilee is occasionally called "the Sea of Tiberias.") Since it was Caesar's lake, you had to get Caesar's permission to fish on it. Licenses were usually obtained by family-based groups, such as that represented by the brothers Andrew and Simon, for example, or James and John.
It appears that Jesus relied upon fisherman for his first base of support, an indication that the fishing economy was stressed and that those whose livelihood was drawn from it were in a state of unrest. Indeed, Jesus would travel to many fishing villages along the Sea of Galilee, most particularly Capernaum, home of the Sea's largest harbor. (For more on the fishing economy of first century Galilee, see K.C. Hanson's article, "The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition.")
Theologically speaking, the first thing Jesus does after announcing the fulfillment of "God's time" and the arrival of the "kingdom" is to begin assembling a New Community. Put another way, the recruitment of Andrew, Peter, James, and John is symbolic of the "relational" nature of the gospel. "God's kingdom" has a fundamentally communal dimension.
"Come after me and I will make you to be fishers of people." The Greek word genesthai means to generate, to make happen, to create--in my tranlation, "to be." In a fresh act of creation, Jesus will make his followers into "new people" following a new "way" in a New Community.
Put another way, "fishers of people" has nothing to do with today's popular notion of evangelism. The idea is assuredly not to go around trying to "hook" people into Christianity so they can be "saved" according to our definitions.
Rather, Jesus is calling these fishermen onto a new path--a new way of living. He has more important things for them to do than participate in the current, and corrupt, market system.
The reference to "fishers" recalls Jeremiah 16: 16: "I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them..." The context of Jeremiah is to "catch" those who have been cast out--those cast out by Yahweh! In Mark's theology, this is exactly what Jesus will do. He will redeem everything, including those who would have been rejected by God's law.
In response to Jesus' call that they have more important things to do than catch fish from Caesar's lake, Andrew and Simon "immediately" left their nets and followed Jesus. The Greek word commonly translated here as "left" is aphentes. It means released, or let go. Andrew and Simon left their nets--that is, they "let go" of their economic livelihood, and "released" their participation in the current market system.
The Greek text then says that Jesus "went a little further" to James and John. Indeed he would. James and John would "let go" of something even more central than economic livelihood. They "released" themselves from their family. They left their father in the boat.
In other words, the New Community would indeed be new. It would be a "turn" from existing social structures and time-bound traditions. People in the New Community would derive their identity not from their present economic condition or their past familial relationships, but rather be given a new identity as followers of the "way" of the "kingdom of God" as taught and lived by their leader, Jesus of Galilee.
Image: Calling disciples, He Qi
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
Translation: The next day, Jesus willed to go into Galilee and he found Philip and Jesus said to him, "Imitate me." But Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found of whom Moses wrote in the law and the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, out of Nazareth." Nathanael said to him, "Out of Nazareth can anything good come to be?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him and he said about him, "Behold, truly an Israelite in whom there is no treachery!" Nathanael said to him, "Where did you know me?" Jesus answered and said to him, "Before Philip called you, I saw your true nature under the fig tree." Nathanael answered him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are ruler of Israel." Jesus answered and said to him, "Because I say to you that I saw you underneath the fig tree, you believe? You will be seeing greater things than these." And he said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to all of you, you will be seeing the heavens having been opened and the angels of God going up and coming down upon the son of man."
Background and situation: We are 42 verses into the fourth gospel. In those 42 verses, Jesus has been identified with the Word present before all of creation who then appeared in the "wilderness" with John.
So far, we have had no particular spatial markers. No geographical place has been identified. Andrew has just announced Jesus as "messiah" (1:41), and you might expect that the geographical place first linked with the "messiah" of Israel would be the Temple in Jerusalem. But no, the first specific place identified with Jesus in the fourth gospel is Galilee.
The fourth gospel is essentially an argument within the Judaism of its time--not an argument between Jews and Christians, in other words, but an argument between Galilean Jews and Judean Jews, the former represented by Jesus and the latter by the temple.
Galilee would be the place of Jesus' strongest political support so, from that perspective, its not at all surprising that the first specific geographical place to be associated with Jesus in the fourth gospel is Galilee.
Initial encounters: Jesus "found" Philip and said to him, "Imitate me." The imperative is akoleuthei, which means to "be in the same way with," i.e. to follow, or imitate. Jesus has not yet said anything about what following him might actually entail. Philip is to trust Jesus implicitly and commit himself to a future way of living about which, so far, he knows nothing.
Philip is then identified as being from Bethsaida, which, strictly speaking, was not in Galilee in AD 30, the time of Jesus' actual ministry, although at the time of the writing of the fourth gospel, c. AD 90, it was identified with Galilee.
Nathanael is not on any list of the Twelve though has at times been identified with Simon the Cananean, Bartholomew, and Matthew. The evidence for any of these associations, however, is slim to the point of non-existent. According to Fr. Ray Brown, Nathanael was from Cana, a town near Nazareth, which will prove to be the setting for Jesus' first "sign" in the fourth gospel, one which will come up shortly in chapter two.
Philip tells Nathanael: "We have found of whom Moses wrote in the law and the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, out of Nazareth." Actually, Moses did not refer to a specific "messiah" figure. (Brown says this refers to the "general expectation of the Hebrew scriptures" for "one-to-come.")
Also, what is Philip saying with his reference to Jesus as "son of Joseph"? If Jesus was known as "son of Joseph," even in only a few circles, this would tend to undermine the "virgin theology" expressed in Matthew and Luke.
Philip's names another specific place. He describes Jesus as "out of Nazareth." Nazareth was a Galilean village, and the second geographical marker used specifically in reference to Jesus. Galilee is not only the first place that Jesus "willed" to go, it is also his place of earthly origin.
As a physical place, Nazareth was a small village, so insignificant that it is not mentioned one time in the entire Old Testament nor in Josephus' list of Galilean towns. Nathanael makes a wry comment: "Out of Nazareth can anything good come to be?" Nathanael may not know that all things, including Nazareth, "came to be" out of the Word (1:3). That being the case, then of course that Word may also come "out" from anyplace created, including little Nazareth.
Another possibility is that Nathanael of Cana was trash-talking the neighboring town of Nazareth. It is certainly not uncommon for local villagers to make snarky comments about their rival community. This seems unlikely in this case, however. The fourth gospel has more important things on its mind than passing on local epithets.
Philip replies to Nathanael by saying the same words that Jesus had just previously said to Andrew and Peter: "Come and see (1:39)," which Nathanael then does. Jesus sees Nathanael "coming to him," and says, "Behold, truly an Israelite in whom there is no treachery."
The first person to be associated with the name "Israel" is Jacob (Gen. 27: 35-36). Jesus flatters Nathanael by calling him a true son of Jacob.
One notes also Isaiah 44: 5:
This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s’,
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, ‘The Lord’s’,
and adopt the name of Israel.
"Knowing" Nathanael: Nathanael, the "true Israelite," will later name Jesus as "son of God" and "King of Israel." Indeed, Isaiah 44, cited above, goes on to speak of "the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts... (44:6)" Says the fourth gospel: A "true Israelite"--a true son of Jacob--is one who comes to Jesus.
Nathanael asks Jesus, "Where did you know me?"--more literally, "From where are you knowing me?" The Greek word is ginosko, a "knowing" of deep intimacy and thoroughness. Historically, it even had a sexual component. It expresses the kind of interior "knowing" which will characterize the followers of Jesus. They will be "known" intimately by Jesus, and vice versa. This is a major theme of the fourth gospel.
Jesus answered Nathanael with this cryptic remark: "Before Philip called you, I saw your true nature under the fig tree." NRSV has: "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." This fails to translate the Greek word onta, which is the participial form of eimi, which is the Greek form of the English verb "to be."
Our word "ontology" comes from onta. Ontology refers to the essential nature of something. Jesus saw the "true Nathanael" in his essential being, in his true and essential nature. Indeed, Jesus did "know" Nathanael.
"Under the fig tree." Moreover, Jesus saw him "under the fig tree." Some midrashic stories refer to rabbis studying under a fig tree. (The Tree of Knowledge in Genesis 3 was said to be a fig tree. The expression "gathering figs" would mean studying.)
Perhaps this is the reason some commentators have come to the idea that Nathanael was a teacher or a theologian. (The supposedly brilliant Augustine said that, since Nathanael was educated, that probably meant he could not have been one of the Twelve, as if you had to have been an ignorant dullard to be one of the twelve disciples!)
In the Hebrew scriptures, "under the fig tree" recalls Micah 4:4--"...all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid..."--and Zechariah 3:10--"On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree."
The fig tree is a symbol of the messianic age, an age of peace and serenity. Considering the close associations between the fourth gospel and the book of Genesis, one might also note that the fig tree is the only tree specifically mentioned in the primeval history (Gen 3:7).
Nathanael responds, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are ruler of Israel." The title of "rabbi" was not used prior to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 (Howard-Brook, p 70), but was used at the time of the writing of the fourth gospel. In the time of Jesus, "rabbi" was not an official title. The designation was usually given to a person as a sign of respect and authority.
"Ruler of Israel," as mentioned earlier, is likely a reference to Isaiah 44:6. Where Isaiah 44 has "Lord" (adonai), however, the fourth gospel has "Son of God."
Jesus responds, "Because I say to you that I saw you underneath the fig tree, you believe? You will be seeing greater things than these." In fact, the followers of Jesus will start "seeing" his "signs" shortly, i.e. the wedding at Cana in chapter two.
"Truly, truly": Then follows a "double-amen" saying: "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will be seeing the heavens having been opened and the angels of God going up and coming down upon the son of man." Only the fourth gospel has "double-amen" sayings--translated into English as "truly, truly"--of which there are 25 of them!
The image of angels recalls Jacob's ladder and angels "going up and coming down" on it (Gen 28:12). Yet here, they are "going up and coming down upon the son of man," which, itself, is a reference to Daniel 7:13--"one like a son of man."
At the time of Jesus, the book of Daniel was quite popular in Jewish circles. It expressed hope for a divine figure who would intervene in history and undo the oppression of Israel. That figure is identified as "one like a son of man," or "one like a human being," and also one who is "coming with the clouds of heaven," indicating also a divine figure.
In the first 50 verses of the fourth gospel, the following titles have been used regarding Jesus: God the only Son, Lamb of God, Son of God, rabbi, teacher, messiah, anointed, rabbi (again), Son of God (again), and King of Israel.
Yet here, in his first utterance in reference to himself, Jesus identifies with the "son of man" figure of Daniel, an apocalyptic image and one of victory. Three times, the fourth gospel will say that the "son of man" will be "lifted up" on the cross. (This is perhaps the fourth gospel's way of relating the three-fold passion prediction in the synoptics.) It is his "lifting up" which will "draw all people to himself (12:32)."
Thus, in Jesus' first description of himself in the fourth gospel, he identifies himself as the one who will be "lifted up" on the cross which will indeed bring God's victory to all people.
Image: Jacob's Ladder, Marc Chagall
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you withwater; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Translation: John, the one baptizing in the wilderness, happened, and preaching a baptism of repentance for the release of sins. And all in the region of Judea and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. And John was dressed in camel's hair, and a leather skin belt around his loin and he was eating locusts and wild honey. And he was proclaiming, saying, "The one mightier than me is coming after me. I am surely not fit to bend down to loose the leather strap of his sandals. I baptized you in water, but he will baptize you in a holy spirit."
And it happened in those days, Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee, and he was baptized into the Jordan by John. And immediately, rising up out of the water, he saw the heavens being split open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending into him. And a voice happened out of the heavens, "You are my son, the beloved. In you, I am pleased."
Background and situation: In the opening three verses of Mark's gospel, he tells of the "beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God." He then says that he is quoting Isaiah, although the text really is a conflation of Exodus 23: 30, Malachi 3: 1a, and Isaiah 40:3.
These texts, and Mark's summary of their message, introduce the messenger, the way, the voice, and the wilderness. All of these symbols are freighted with heavy meaning throughout Mark's gospel.
The "messenger" is (likely) John. The text is unclear as to the specific identify of the messenger. Other possibilities are Jesus himself or the evangelist Mark. Probably John is meant.
The "way" will characterize the spiritual and social journey of Jesus and his subsequent followers. The "voice" indicates that Yahweh is being heard from again, and the "wilderness" recalls first the wanderings of the Hebrews and also the uncharted territory of everyone on their journey through life.
The messenger: The Malachi portion of the Old Testament citation is, "I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me." The rest of the line, not quoted by Mark, is "and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple."
Mark doesn't want to go there--no positive references to the Temple for Mark--so he switches to Isaiah 40:3 to finish. "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Is: 40:3)"
The wilderness is where John "happened"--egeneto, a term of appearance, origin, occurrence and beginning. The wilderness is uncharted territory. There are no maps for it, no guides, and no visitors center. For the early Hebrews, it was a place of flight, of hiding out, but also a place of new beginning. The early Hebrews came out of the wilderness as a people.
The wilderness is also a place of testing, first for the early Hebrews, and then for Jesus. (The temptation of Jesus follows immediately upon today's lection.) In the time of Jesus, the wilderness was, in addition to being a place of loneliness and danger, also home to rebels, revolutionaries, brigands, and thieves.
Everyone went to hear John: "All" the region of Judea and "all" the people of Jerusalem went out to John in the wilderness. What does this mean?
Jerusalem was a company town. Some of the inhabitants literally lived in the shadow of the Temple, and thousands worked there. The temple had its own mechanisms for repentance and dealing with sin. Institutional and traditional religion, always expert at sin, had sin covered.
The Lord God, however, was not operating through the existing institutional channel of the Temple, but rather the "voice" directed the people to the uncharted territory of the wilderness. The people went there to confess their sins and not to the temple. They walked right by the Temple to make the trek out to see John, who offered a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Mark's gospel has only just begun and already we see the outlines of the ensuing conflict: wilderness vs. Temple, Jesus vs. Jerusalem.
Mark then calls attention to John's dress and behavior: "And John was dressed in camel's hair, and a leather skin belt around his loin and he was eating locusts and wild honey." Compare 2 Kings 1:8: "They answered him, ‘A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.’ He said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.’" (That John eats locusts and wild honey is a way of saying that John eats without preparing his food. He is directly provided for by God.)
Mark is obviously drawing a parallel between Elijah and John. The book of Malachi--the last book of the Old Testament--had ended with the promise of the coming of Elijah who would bring in "the great and terrible day of the Lord (Mal 4:5)." For Mark, that day has now arrived. (Moreover, the mention of Elijah had a political dimension. Elijah had plotted against King Ahab.)
In all four gospels, John directs attention away from himself to the "one mightier than me." "Loosing the leather strap of his sandals" appears to be a semiticism which indicates subordination. The phrase also appears in the fourth gospel (1:27).
John baptizes in water, but the coming one will "baptize in a holy spirit." Ched Myers understands "baptism in the holy spirit" to be confrontation with the "powers."
Later in Mark, as Jesus prepares to go the way of the cross, James and John want to be at his left and his right "in (his) glory." (10:35-45) Jesus wants to make sure they understand what they are saying. He says, "Are you able...to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? (10:38)" That "baptism" is Jesus' coming confrontation with the religious and political powers.
The baptism of Jesus: Mark introduces Jesus with another egeneto--"It happened in those days, Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee." Mark has no Bethlehem story. For Mark, Jesus is a Nazarene and a Galilean.
Nazareth was a small town near the Roman city of Sepphoris. Perhaps as few as 30 people lived there. It was so insignificant that the name of Nazareth does not appear in the entire Old Testament. Nor does Nazareth appear on Josephus' first century list of towns and cities. The mention of Nazareth underlines the humble origins of Jesus.
The mention of Galilee is significant as well. The self-appointed "elites" of Jerusalem considered Galileans to be "hicks from the sticks." Galileans were mainly involved in agriculture or fishing. Either way, they were poor.
Moreover, Galilee was a heavily "hellenized" region. Not only did many people of Greek descent live there, but Greek culture had spread widely throughout the region. Capernaum, for example, was the site of a Greek ampitheater.
Galilee was also somewhat separated from Judea because Samaria lay between them. Jews, whether Galilean or Judean, avoided Samaria. Mark's mention of Galilee was a way of underlining a theme that has already appeared, in multiple ways, in only the first few verses of his gospel: namely, that God was working apart from Jerusalem and apart from the Temple.
The actual baptism of Jesus is mentioned only briefly, and is related in the passive voice. He was baptized "into the Jordan by John." Note that those who went out from Jerusalem were baptized "in" the Jordan River while Jesus goes one better and is baptized "into" the Jordan. Jesus goes all the way in.
Mark's brief statement regarding the actual baptism is a way of sliding by John's involvement in that baptism. All four gospels are at pains to put John subordinate to Jesus in every way. None of them accent Jesus' actual baptism by John because that would imply Jesus' subordination to John.
The voice: Mark wants to move quickly beyond the baptism to the voice from heaven. "Immediately" after Jesus goes "into" the Jordan--("immediately" is not translated in NRSV)--Jesus "rises up out of the water." Upon rising up out of the water, Jesus "sees"--and only Jesus sees. The ensuing revelation is not meant for the crowds, but only for Jesus--(and Mark's readers).
What did Jesus see? "The heavens being split open." (The word is schizomenous. Schizo means "split." Schizophrenia, for example, literally means "split mind.") No doubt Mark intends a reference to Isaiah 64:1: "Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down."
Indeed, that is what happens. "The Spirit like a dove descending into him." Not only did the Spirit "come down," it went into Jesus. As Jesus went "into" the Jordan, the Spirit goes "into" Jesus. The plea of Isaiah is answered, and dramatically!
For the third time, the word egeneto appears in this short lection--"it happened." First, John "happened." Then Jesus "happened." Now the voice from heaven "happened." The voice, clearly God's, identifies Jesus as "my son, the beloved." This recalls Psalm 2:7--"You are my son"--and Isaiah 42:1: "I will put my spirit upon him."
Both of these Old Testament allusions have meaning. The Psalm text goes on to say that the whole earth will belong to God's son. The Isaiah text goes on to speak of significant opposition when God breaks open the heavens and comes down. There are "adversaries," though, of course, the nations will also "tremble" at "your presence." Isaiah 42:3: "You did awesome deeds that we did not expect."
That, the "awesome deeds that we did not expect," touches on perhaps the most significant theme in Mark's gospel, which is that the Son of God opposes the socio-cultural-political ways of this world and advocates an alternate "way," a "way" we did not expect, one of compassion, gender equality, non-heirarchical social structure, and radical equality.
This is a "way" which will threaten the powers-that-be and will result in Jesus being crushed by his "adversaries."
Yet, paradoxically, the Son of God's most triumphant moment will be his living that "way" to the end, even when he is forsaken by God and annihilated on the cross. This "way"--faithful and true, in spite of every opposition--will be vindicated by God in the resurrection. In this way, God's son--the beloved, the crucified--will make "the ends of the earth (his) possession (Ps 2:8)."
NYTimes: "Mr. Cuomo burst beyond the state’s boundaries to personify the liberal wing of his national party and become a source of unending fascination and, ultimately, frustration for Democrats, whose leaders twice pressed him to run for president, in 1988 and 1992, to no avail."
"In the end, two images of Mr. Cuomo endure. The first is of him, as governor, commanding the lectern at the 1984 Democratic convention, stilling a sea of delegates with his oratory. The second is of two chartered airplanes on the tarmac at the Albany airport in December 1992, waiting to fly him to New Hampshire to pay the $1,000 filing fee that would put his name on the state's Democratic primary ballot for president."
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own,and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Translation: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and God was the Word. This (Word) was in the beginning with God. All came into being through him, and apart from him nothing happened in that which begins. In him was life and the life was the light of humanity. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
It happened, a man named John sent from alongside God. This man came to witness in order that he might witness concerning the light so that all might trust through him. He was not that light, but in order that he might witness concerning the light. The true light which enlightens all humanity was coming into the universe. He was in the universe, and the universe became through him, but the universe did not perceive him. He came into his own, and his own did not receive him. But as many as received him, he gave them power to become children of God, the ones trusting into his name, who were born not of bloodshed nor out of flesh-will, nor out of man-will, but out of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived in us and we have beheld his glory, glory as only-born from alongside the Father, full of grace and truth. John witnessed about him and he cried out, saying, "This is he whom I said the one coming after me happened before me because he was before me." For out of his plentitude we all have received, grace against grace, for the law through Moses was given, the grace and the truth came to be through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, only-begotten God, the one in the bosom of the Father, he has translated.
Background and situation: The opening prologue of the fourth gospel reverberates with well-known Johannine themes--Word (logos), light, life, witness--and also some that are less well-known, such as "cosmos," "faithing," "all humanity," and the Greek word ginomai, in its various forms, a word whose fundamental meaning is "to bring into being," and which can be legitimately translated in a variety of ways.
This is not surprising, of course, considering that the fourth gospel has many affinities with the book of Genesis and the original story of creation. (For a detailed sketch of John 1 compared with Genesis 1, see here.)
One of the more obvious of these is the opener: "In the beginning." In the beginning, the Word--logos--was fully equal with God. In fact, the creation itself came into being through the Word. This is indeed the highest of high Christologies, and the basis for much of the trinitarian theology which would later be formulated in the third and fourth centuries.
Compare the various New Testament writers on this question: When and how was Jesus the Son of God? Paul, the earliest New Testament writer, seems not terribly interested in this question, but sometimes gives the impression that it was in his resurrection that Jesus became Son of God. Mark, writing about twenty years after Paul, seems to say that Jesus became Son of God at his baptism. Matthew and Luke, writing about ten to fifteen years after Mark, roll this back to the birth of Jesus.
Just after Matthew and Luke, the later Pauline writings--Ephesians, Colossians--accent the cosmic sweep of God's work in Christ, just as does the fourth gospel. The fourth gospel goes them one better though. Where, for Colossians, Christ the "first-born of all creation," he is not born at all in the fourth gospel. The Word was always with God even before creation began.
"In the beginning": "In the beginning was the logos." Logos varies in meaning depending on what period in history it is being used. The original meaning of the word was "to gather" or "to collect."
By the time of Jesus, logos had come to mean the creative power of God and the kingship of God over all things. Philo of Alexandria, a first century Jewish philosopher, saw logos as flowing from God himself, and as the mechanism through which God created the universe.
Logos translates the Hebrew dabar, a word which also has a rich wealth of meaning, but most commonly refers to God's self-communication, or the relating of God, who is unseen, to the created world. Logos combines the concepts of thought, deed, and power. For the author of the fourth gospel, logos is an expression of God's innermost nature which is present in the world.
After relating the creation of the world, the fourth gospel asserts: "In him was life and the life was the light of humanity. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it."
Life, light, and humanity all appear at once. Then, the "darkness" is acknowledged, though not defined. Yet, no matter what, it cannot "overcome" or "over-power" the light. Nor, it should be said, does the light "over-power" the darkness either. The darkness cannot "win," but the victory of the light is yet to be established.
It might seem surprising that the figure of John makes an appearance so early in the fourth gospel. He is identified as "sent" by God. Interesting: The verb form--apestalmenos, "sent"--is used frequently in the fourth gospel, but the noun form--"apostle"--is never used. For the fourth gospel, the gospel is not a static thing, but something that is being done.
Moreover, John is identified as being sent para God--from alongside of God. Prepositions can be tricky things in Greek, but of the options available to the author of the fourth gospel, it is interesting that he chose para here instead of ek or apo. Ek means "out of,"apo "away from." Para, however, means "from the side of."
The use of para indicates that the witness of John has its source or origin in God. John may not be the light, but his witness to the light comes from God. This is high praise indeed.
John's purpose is to "witness" to the light, a strong theme in the fourth gospel. The author quickly asserts that John is not the light himself, lest anyone get any ideas. The community around John the Baptist continued even after his death and was likely still around at the time of the writing of the fourth gospel. The fourth gospel is clear that John witnesses to Christ. He is sent from God, yes, but for the purpose of pointing to Christ.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world--a striking statement of universality, especially considering that the "cosmos" (mentioned four times in two verses) was created through the this light, but that very "cosmos" also rejected the light. Even "his own" did not "receive" him.
Children of God: For those who did "receive" him, however, "he gave them power--exousian--to become children of God." Becoming "children of God" is all about "trusting into his name"--a name which, as yet, we do not know!
The word translated as "believe" is pisteuein. Unfortunately, "believe" is not quite the meaning of pisteuein, which really means "radical trust," an orientation of one's entire self, and not just the intellect as the word "believe" would imply.
The status of "children of God" has completely to do with trust, and is certainly "not of bloods." The word aimaton is actually in its plural form, and, according to Wes Howard-Brook, the word is a Hebrew idiom for "bloodshed" or violence. Violence does not make children of God.
Nor are children of God born out of "flesh-will"--not, in other words, through the established ways of the world. Wes Howard-Brook: "('Flesh-will') is the manner of behavior that is focused on superficial satisfaction, the culturally acceptable, the easy and comfortable."
Nor are children of God formed "out of man-will." The fourth gospel has heretofore used the broadly inclusive word anthropos to refer to human beings in general. Here, the author picks a word that specifically relates to men, andros.
One of the primary characteristics of the Johannine community was egalitarianism and gender equality. This will become more and more clear as the gospel unfolds. He signals here that male headship--"man-will"--does not create children of God. Only God does.
Kai ho logos sarx egeneto: Then comes the famous line: "And the Word became flesh." God's self-expression enters into actual human flesh. This is yet another instance of the word ginomai. (I count ten uses in eighteen verses.) The word has to do with creation, origin, "happening." Here, you might say, the source of all being enters into the realm of becoming. The essential enters into the existential.
The Word "dwelt" or "tented" with us. This recalls the days of ancient Israel when YHWH "tented" with his people. This dwelling, or "tenting," is "in us"--en hamin.
No, this is nothing about Jesus "living in your heart." The pronoun is plural. It's about the mutual indwelling between Christ and his followers, a resounding theme all through the fourth gospel. Not only does Christ indwell his followers, but he indwells God. Likewise, God indwells Christ, and Christ's followers indwell him.
The text is not, in other words, about individual salvation. There is none of that here. He gave them power to become "children of God". The fourth gospel is all about the community indwelling with each other and with God. It is not about the individual's appropriation of Jesus, but rather God's appropriation of humanity through Christ and how God lives in the greatest intimacy with his followers. All through the gospel the words are plural, not singular.
The word "glory" is introduced and then emphasized--"glory as only-born (monogenous) from alongside (para) the Father." This Word is "full of grace and truth. (According to Jose Miranda, the Greek words here translate the Hebrew chesed v'emet, i.e. "lovingkindness.")
John the Baptist makes another appearance, asserting yet again the pre-eminence of Christ over himself, and, following that, fullness and grace words resound again. It seems that whenever John speaks, his words are preceded and followed by words like light, life, grace, and glory. Charis--"grace"--appears three times.
The fourth gospel then asserts that, yes, the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth come through Jesus Christ. For the first time, the name of Christ is mentioned, as if the entire prologue were oriented toward this climactic moment. This is the name in whom his followers trust: "Jesus Christ."
"No one has ever seen God"--not Moses, in other words--but the "only-son", from the very bosom of God, has "translated" God to us. The word is exegesato, from where we get our word "exegesis." It does not mean "interpretation" so much, but rather "translation," the transformation of thought into another language--in this case, the "translation," and the articulation, of God into "flesh."
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
Translation: When the day of their cleansing under the law of Moses had been fulfilled, they brought him into Jerusalem to stand before the Lord, just as it has been written in the law of the Lord that each male opening a mother will be called sacred to the Lord, and they gave an offering according to what had been spoken in the law of the Lord, a team of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
And behold! a man was in Jerusalem named Simeon, and this man (was) just and circumspect, looking for the encouragement of Israel and a holy spirit was upon him, and it had been divinely intimated to him from the Holy Spirit not to see death before he might see the Lord's Christ. And he went in the spirit into the Temple, and when the parents of the child Jesus brought him in to do for him according to the custom of the law about him, and (Simeon) took him into (his) arms and praised God and said, "Now, Master, you release your servant in peace, according to your word, because my eyes have seen the salvation which you made ready to the face of all the peoples, a light into a revelation of nations and glory of your people Israel."
And his father and mother were astonished upon what was being spoken concerning him. And Simeon spoke well of them, and said to Mary, his mother, "Behold, this child is placed for the falling and raising up many in Israel, and into a sign spoken against, and a sword will pass through the life of you yourself in the same manner as the thoughts of many hearts have been revealed."
And there was Anna, a prophet, daughter of Phanuel, out of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in many days. She lived with a man seven years from her virginity, and she was a widow until 84 years who was not put away (from) the Temple, fasting and praying, serving night and day. And at that hour, she stood praising God and she was speaking about him to all the ones welcoming the redemption of Jerusalem.
Background and situation: Several Lukan themes find expression in this text. One notes, for example, the pairing of Simeon and Anna. Stories concerning men and women are often balanced in Luke's gospel, just as we have already seen with Elizabeth and Zechariah in chapter one. All four of the gospels lift up women, but it is especially pronounced in Luke. Note, for example, that it is Anna who has the special title of prophet, and it is she who makes a public witness.
Secondly, Luke mentions the Holy Spirit three times in this text. Whenever you see the phrase "in the power of the Spirit," it's a fair bet that the text is from either Luke's gospel or the book of Acts (also written by Luke). The "power of the Spirit" is active throughout Luke's story.
Someone has said that Luke is an "up-and-out gospel," while Mark is a "down-and-in gospel." The Spirit can and does work either way. Luke wants us to know that the early days of the Jesus movement were marked by the Spirit's continual intervention, in this case to console Simeon and provide him spiritual insight.
Third, Luke also takes a generally more positive view toward the Temple and Jerusalem than any of the other gospel writers. The baby Jesus is presented at the Temple. Later, at age 12, the child Jesus will again be at the Temple. Where other gospel writers, and particularly Mark, have nothing good to say about either Temple or Jerusalem, Luke has an angel tells the disciples to "stay in Jerusalem" after the death of Jesus. (Mark and Matthew tell them to go to Galilee.)
The Presentation: Joseph and Mary are presented as religiously devout. Joseph is taking Mary and the baby Jesus to the Temple for "their purification," although, strictly speaking, the purification ritual was for Mary only. The "purification" of the new mother occurred 40 days after the birth of a male child, and 80 days after the birth of a female child. The first-born male didn't need to be "purified." He was to be dedicated to the Lord, which could be had for the price of five shekels.
Thus, Luke is either wrong about a ritual of Israel, or he is making a point. Let's pick the latter. The phrase "their purification" is a reference to Jesus' solidarity with humanity. The Christ Child doesn't need to be "purified," but he's "purified" anyway, a sign that he stands with the people.
Readers will note the combination of Temple, religious ritual, the power of the Spirit, and the "law of the Lord." The Spirit, as noted, is mentioned three times, and "the law" four. The text is palpably Judaic, yet notice: For Luke, Spirit and Temple are not opposed. The religion of Israel is still vital and capable of bringing renewal and inspiring devotion.
Luke is careful, however, to avoid priests. Notice that Simeon is not identified as a priest. He may, in fact, be a lay person, while Anna is identified as a prophet. The people and traditions of Israel are seen positively by Luke, but priests and scribes are not.
Both Simeon and Anna are "looking forward with confidence"--prosdexomai. Simeon is "looking forward" for the "comfort" or "consolation" of Israel. The word is paraklesis, a word which the fourth gospel will use for the Holy Spirit, the "Paraclete." (Literally, the word means "called alongside.")
Anna is also "looking forward," but she is looking for something slightly different. She's looking for lutrosin--"ransom, redemption, the end of obligation." These two concepts--related, but slightly different--are found together in Isaiah 52: 9: "Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem."
The clear message of Luke, then, is that the "comfort" and "redemption" of Jerusalem--the prophetic tradition of Isaiah--is fulfilled in the Christ Child.
All of the four gospels accentuate the prophetic tradition, but Luke seems to me to be especially explicit about it. The first words of Jesus in Luke's gospel are to quote the prophet Isaiah and announce the present fulfillment of Isaiah's text.
Or, to take another and very telling example, consider the story of Jesus asking the disciples what people are saying about him. The primary source--Mark--says, "And they told him, 'John the Baptist; and others say, Eli'jah; and others one of the prophets.'" Luke changes Mark in an interesting way. Luke says, "John the Baptist; but others say, Eli'jah; and others, that one of the old prophets has risen."
From Greek, it reads: "a certain prophet from the beginning rose." The word for "beginning" is archaione. It means "from the origin"--from the beginning of creation. The word translated as "rose" is aneste, the word for resurrection. Plus, it's aorist, which we know as past tense, which means that it has already happened. Luke combines "prophet", "beginning", and "resurrection." For Luke, God's intention has been resurrection through Christ all along.
There is also a subtle reference to resurrection in this week's lection. Simeon tells Mary that the Christ Child is "destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel." One wonders: Is this the "falling" of some and the "raising" of others? Or, is it the falling of all the people and the raising of all?
Probably the latter. Here's why: The prophet Isaiah suffuses this passage, and this is yet another example. The "falling" and "rising" language is reminiscent of Isaiah 51: 17: "Rouse yourself, rouse yourself! Stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs."
Granted, it's not obvious at first glance, but consider that the Septuagint translates "the cup of his wrath" with ptosis, which literally would be "the cup of falling." The word for "raising" in the Lukan text is, of course, anastasis, the word for resurrection. The "falling" is Isaian; the "rising" is Lukan. This is Luke saying, yet again, that the prophetic witness of Isaiah is fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus.
Luke goes on to note the opposition that Jesus will meet. The rest of Simeon's oracle has had many interpretations. (Ray Brown lists eight.) This much can be said: The reference to "sword" strikes a note of violence, as later events will prove.
The "sword" appears directed, however, to the inner life, to the "the thoughts of many hearts." One is reminded of the passage in Hebrews about the Word of God being "sharper than any two-edged sword." Indeed, Luke does seem to indicate inner turmoil. Everything will be revealed. It will be painful, though not fatal. Human resistance will not thwart God's saving purpose.
Notice, too, that Luke has several old people in his infancy narrative. First, there was Zechariah and Elizabeth. Now, there is Simeon and Anna. Old people have been around awhile. They carry the community's memory. They are a repository of tradition.
Elizabeth represents Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. Simeon represents Israel's long wait for the Messiah. Anna represents not only the prophetic tradition, but also its capacity for renewal and ability to do, as Isaiah said, "a new thing." The prophet Anna is a woman. (Zechariah represents clueless priests, also part of the tradition.)
People in liturgical churches have a long familiarity with the Song of Simeon. We know it as the Nunc Dimittus. First, Simeon notes his departure. Having seen the Messiah, he may now die in peace "for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
Simeon's words have--again--their reference to Isaiah, this time 40: 3-5 where "all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
This song brings to a climax the infancy narrative of Luke. Notice that it's accent is both on the fulfillment of the traditions of Israel and the inclusion of the gentiles. That is to say, Christ is the fulfillment of the prophetic vision and the vehicle through whom "all peoples" and "all flesh" are brought into the life of God.
"Shout for joy, exult, rise up, glorify the day, praise what today the highest has done! Abandon hesitation, banish lamentation, start singing with rejoicing and exaltation! Serve the highest with glorious choirs. Let us honour the name of our Lord!"
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah,* the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,* praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’*
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Translation: And it happened in those days, an ordinance from Caesar Augustus went out (that) all the inhabited world be taxed--this taxing happened first when Cyrenius was governor of Syria--and all were going to be taxed, each one into their own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, into a city of David which is called Bethlehem because he is out of the house and lineage of David, to be taxed with Mary who was engaged to him (and) being pregnant.
And it happened, while they were there, the days of her bringing forth were fulfilled, and she brought forth her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the guest room. And there were shepherds in that region, abiding in the field and keeping watch over their flock by night, and an angel of the Lord came to them and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were struck with a great fear. And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold! I bring a joyful message to you, a great gladness, which will be to all the people, for to you, today, in the city of David, is brought forth a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger."
And suddenly it happened, with the angel a multitude of the hosts of heaven, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of gracious purpose." And it happened, as the angels went from them into heaven, the shepherds were saying to one another, "Let us go even to Bethlehem and see this word which has come to be, which the Lord has made known to us." And they came quickly and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger. And seeing, they made known concerning the word, the one spoken to them concerning this child, and all the ones who heard were amazed concerning what had been spoken to them by the shepherds. But Mary was keeping together all these words, bringing them together in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they heard and seen, just as it was told them.
Background and situation: Caesar Augustus was the big winner of the Roman civil war. He was Octavian, the nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar. Upon the assassination of Julius Caesar (44 BC), the 19 year-old Octavian formed an alliance with Gen. Mark Antony (his rival for leadership of the Caesarians), and they defeated the anti-Caesar faction headed by Brutus and Cassius at Philippi (42 BC).
After Philippi, Octavian and Antony had their inevitable falling out, and went to war against each other. In the propaganda lead-up to war, Antony began a campaign to recognize Julius Caesar's son by Cleopatra as the rightful heir to power in Rome. Octavian was an adopted son, and saw Antony's move, correctly, as a political threat.
Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. (Octavian was not much of a warrior or military strategist. The true victor was his commander, Agrippa.) Thus ended the Roman Civil War. Octavian--now Caesar Augustus--was given credit for ending thirteen years of chaos. Many called him "the savior of the world." (Augustus was exceptionally skilled at generating positive publicity for himself.)
A Great Gladness: There is no evidence of an empire-wide census at the time of Jesus' birth. Caesar Augustus conducted three censuses during his long 41-year reign. The census closest to the birth of Jesus was in 8 BC. All of Caesar's censuses were limited to Roman citizens, however.
When Quirinius (Cyrenius in Latin) was governor of Syria, there was a local census in the year AD 6. Herod had died in 4 BC. His son, Herod Archelaus, succeeded him, but was replaced by Quirinius in AD 6. The arrival of Quirinius meant that the region was now under direct Roman control, and they celebrated the occasion by increasing their effort to squeeze the people dry.
The census of Quirinius was accompanied by widespread uprisings. This was not the least uncommon. Whenever Caesar, or local governors like Quirinius, ran censuses, they would nearly always be accompanied by uprisings and revolts. The tax burden was already excessive, and people lived in a grinding poverty, under the bootheel of Rome, that was getting worse, and not better.
Until Jesus, the most famous Galilean would have been Judas the Galilean who, according to Josephus, led the revolt against the census. The revolt was, of course, brutally crushed. Some historians trace the emergence of the zealots to the uprisings against the census of Quirinius. The zealots, in turn, were part of a chain of events that led to the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-70.
The imposition of an empire-wide census, with each person returning to their home town to be "registered", is not very likely. It would have been a logistical nightmare, for one thing. The population of the entire empire would have been on the move to somewhere.
Secondly, it was never Roman policy to make people return to their home town for the census. Besides, where, exactly, is one's home town? For some, this might be a no-brainer because their family has lived in one spot for generations. For lots of others, however, such a question would be very confusing.
Luke was not writing history. He was writing theology in narrative form. He begins his Christmas story by noting the big wheels of the world--Caesar! Quirinius!--and how they like to jerk people around. Roman power makes Joseph dance to its tune, sending him across the country to get "counted" so that Rome could get more efficient at taking his money for taxes. This was wrong on history, but absolutely right on truth.
Luke is writing about the true "savior of the world," one from the line of the great King David. He looks to Bethlehem, the city of David, and not to Rome, the city of Caesar. All the synoptics take this point of view.
In verses 6-7, Luke uses strong language to assert the birth of Jesus--literally, "But it happened, in the existence of them, there the days are fullfilled of her bringing forth." It doesn't read very smoothly in English, but notice how Luke underlines the birth with three key words: It happened (egeneto) in the happening (einai), the bringing forth (tipto).
Jesus is identified as Mary's "first born son." The word is prototokos. It will pop up again in Colossians 1 where Jesus is described as "the first born of all creation." (Did the author of Colossians know Luke's gospel? Was the author of Colossians, with his notable cosmic vision and high christology, expanding on Mary's "first born son" and proclaiming him the "first born of all creation"?)
There was no room for Joseph and Mary in the kataluma. The word refers to the upper room of a house, the guest room--not, in other words, some wayside hotel, barn, or cave. In the case of Joseph and Mary, the guest room was already taken--Uncle Zechariah from Wichita had already claimed it--and they had to stay in the other "room" which, at night, would be home for animals, but during the day would be cleaned up and used by the family.
Joseph and Mary were not alone in the dark of night somewhere. Mary had the baby in a home, surrounded by family. (As an aside, notice also that Luke says nothing at all of any paternity issue. Unlike Matthew, Luke says nothing about Joseph being troubled by the pregnancy and wanting to divorce Mary.)
The birth is announced to shepherds in the field, and not to the powerful in rich palaces. The scandal of the virgin birth is not so much that Mary was a virgin. Lots of famous people were said to have been conceived by various gods, including Caesar Augustus himself. The scandal was that Jesus--a poor kid from a jerkwater town--was born of a virgin. (The image of the shepherd also is a reminder that King David, soon to be mentioned yet again, was also a shepherd.)
Whenever the word "angel" appears in scripture, think: "window into heaven." Angels tell what is happening from the perspective of God. The shepherds are bathed in light (perilampo)--the glory (doxa) of the Lord! The shepherds were absolutely terrified--the word phobos is used twice. (What's more, it's mega.)
The angel announces "good news (euangelion) of great joy for all the people"--or, in my translation: "...a joyful message to you, a great gladness, which will be to all the people."
Luke didn't invent the word euangelion. It was a word that was commonly applied to Caesar. "Euangelion! Good news! Caesar is victorious in Gaul!" In the case of Jesus, the "good news of great joy" is for "all the people (panti to lao)"--not just the powerful, in other words, as was commonly the case.
Somewhat surprisingly, the word savior (sotare) appears only twice in the synoptics--Luke 1, Luke 2. It was a politically-charged term since, after all, Caesar Augustus was known as "the savior of the world." He had brought order to the world after a long war. Great poets, historians, and politicians lauded the peace of Augustus.
Luke's announcement of Jesus as "savior" is directly anti-imperial. It's a way of saying, "Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not." Moreover, this "savior" comes from the house of David. He is not only "lord," but "messiah."
The angels go into heaven, and the shepherds "said to one another (allelous)." All the shepherds are involved in the discussion. Discussion in the New Community is egalitarian, not top down.
They go immediately to Bethlehem and see (idomen) "this thing that has happened (gegonos, again) which the Lord has made known (ginosko) to us." The shepherds share what they have learned. Already, we see signs of the mutuality and reciprocity of the kingdom of God. The shepherds share with each other, and with Joseph and Mary--no privileged information here. The words of the shepherds stir "all" who hear them. They return praising God.
Meanwhile, "Mary was keeping together (suntare) all these words, bringing them together (sumballos) in her heart." Just as the shepherds experience mutuality and, one might say, "wholeness" with each other, Mary also experiences this "wholeness" in her heart. Sunetare has the sense of integration, taking into oneself. Sumballos has the sense of bringing together, even throwing together.
Thus is born the true savior of the world--not Caesar Augustus, the oppressor, false savior of the world, protector of those with power and privilege, but Jesus the Lord, whose birth is "a great gladness" and "good news of great joy for all the people."
Image: Giovannia Bellini, Madonna and child, 1480-1490
Kansas Congressman Kevin Yoder has made the national news twice. First, he went skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee two years ago, and second, he's the one who slipped Wall Street bailout language into the recent government spending bill.
Yoder took (Citicorp executives') language and rolled it into an amendment to a spending bill in a House subcommittee meeting. It got swept into the year-end spending package because it "was within the scope of negotiations" on it, according to an Appropriations Committee aide.
Said one commenter: "Didn't Kansas recently reelect every member of the GOP that bankrupted their state, and turned them into a national laughingstock?"
Why, yes. Yes they did. They re-elected Sam Brownback as governor, and Virginia-resident, Pat Roberts, as senator. Those two hotly-contested races may have enabled Cong. Yoder to slip under peoples' radar, however unlikely it may seem that people could forget about a skinny-dipping congressman from KC
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Translation: But in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a town of Galilee named Nazareth to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name (was) Joseph, out of the house of David. And the name of the virgin (was) Miriam. And he came to her and said, "Rejoice, graced one. The Lord is with you." But she was thoroughly confused at the word and pondered what sort this greeting might be.
And the angel said to her, "Fear not, Miriam, for you have found grace from God. And behold! You will become pregnant in womb and you will bring forth a son, and you will call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called son of the highest, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of David, his father. And he will reign upon the house of Jacob into the eternal, and his kingdom will not end."
But Miriam said to the angel, "How can this be, since I do not know a man?" The angel answered and said to her, "A holy spirit will come upon you, and the highest power will overshadow you. Therefore, the one being born will be called holy, a son of God. And behold! your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month of her, the one said to be barren. For each word from God will not be impossible." But Miriam said, "Behold a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.
Background and situation: The passage appears only in Luke. The book of Luke has just begun and we can already see brought to expression at least two major themes in Luke: his accent on the role of women, and the role of the Holy Spirit.
More than any other gospel, Luke lifts up women. For example, his annunciation story follows right after the visit of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah. True to form for Luke, the man, Zechariah, doesn't really get it, but the woman, Miriam, does.
In regard to "spirit", the child in Elizabeth will be "filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb" (1:15) and have the "spirit of Elijah" (1:17). The Holy Spirit is intimately connected with the conception of Jesus (1:35). Luke will frequently use the phrase "in the power of the Spirit" in both Luke and Acts.
The annunciation: In the late first century, it appears that the early church was beginning to deal with the question of when Jesus became "Son of God." Paul, writing in the 50's, doesn't seem particularly interested in this question, though sometimes gives the impression that Jesus became "Son of God" at the resurrection. (See Rom 1: 3-4, for example.)
The earliest gospel writer, Mark, writing around AD 70, starts his gospel with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. For Mark, it appears that this is when Jesus became God's son. If all we had was the gospel of Mark, we'd all be "adoptionists," i.e. the idea that Jesus was "adopted" by God in his baptism and that this is when he became the "Son of God."
Matthew and Luke, writing 10-15 years later than Mark, roll Jesus' divinity back to his birth. Jesus was the "Son of God" at his conception. Naturally, the birth of a divine figure would be accompanied by miraculous signs, such as the virginity of his mother, which is why the two gospels which proclaim Jesus' divinity from birth are the same two gospels which mention the virginity of Mary.
Even this, of course, was not enough for the author of the fourth gospel, writing c. AD 95. The author of the fourth gospel rolls the divinity of Jesus back before the beginning of creation. Subsequent theology has sided with the fourth gospel.
Mary--more properly, "Miriam"--was betrothed to Joseph, which meant that they were engaged to be married. Engagement in those days was tantamount to marriage. It was a binding agreement. The young woman would typically continue to live with her parents for up to a year, although it was not unknown for the couple to begin to live together right away.
Essentially, an engagement in those days amounted to the passing of control over the woman from the father to the husband. Marriages were arranged by families. The girls would usually be married right after puberty, around the ages of 12-14, the men around the ages 17-22.
Luke draws a close parallel between the birth of John and the birth of Jesus. The birth of John is announced to Zechariah and Elizabeth, in the temple. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah, who is "terrified." Gabriel tells Zechariah not to be afraid, and that "Elizabeth will bear you a son." He is to be named John, and he "will be great."
The birth of Jesus involves Miriam and Joseph (1:27), in Nazareth (1: 26). Gabriel appears to Miriam, who is "perplexed." Gabriel tells Miriam not to be afraid, and that "you...will bear a son." "You will name him Jesus," and "he will be great." (See Joseph Fitzmeyer, The Gospel according to Luke, pp. 314-315.)
The two stories are connected for an important reason. For Luke, John the Baptist is the "symbol, synthesis, conclusion and consummation of the Old Testament" (Borg and Crossan. See The First Christmas, pp. 113ff). This is why his mother is presented as aged. She is like Hannah, who gave birth to the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1: 1-19).
As the "old age" is consummated in John the Baptist, the "new age" begins with the birth of Jesus. His mother is not old, but rather a young virgin. Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist close one age. Joseph, Miriam, and Jesus inaugurate the new.
The angel Gabriel addresses Miriam three times in this text. That amounts to one speech for each use of the word "virgin." Luke probably intended this. The word "virgin" appears twice in verse 27, which is followed by two of Gabriel's speeches. Miriam uses the word herself in verse 34, whereupon Gabriel gives her his most important and final message: The child is from the "Holy Spirit" and "the highest power."
In his first speech, Gabriel greets Miriam with xaire, which literally means "grace to you." This was a common greeting in the world of that time, like "good day" or "howdy". Luke probably intends the literal meaning as well. Gabriel calls Miriam a "favored one"--or "graced one"--and says, "The Lord is with you."
In his second address, Gabriel tells Miriam not to be afraid, and that she has "found grace" with God. Her pregnancy is announced by idou--behold!--(unfortunately not translated in NRSV). Like John the Baptist, her child "will be great," but unlike John the Baptist, Jesus will be "son of the highest," and will rule on the "throne of David" over the "house of Jacob." Luke thus associates Jesus with Israel's greatest king and with Israel's primary progenitor.
In Gabriel's third speech, the angel tells Miriam that the child will be born from the Holy Spirit and the "highest power"--"Most High," in NRSV. The child will be "holy," "a son of God."
Readers will notice that Luke mentions the "highest power" twice. The "highest power" in the world of that time was Caesar Augustus--the word "augustus" means "worthy of being worshipped'--who was also called "son of God." (He was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who had been elevated to "god-hood.")
Luke is being subtly subversive. He is saying that, no, Caesar is not the "highest power." God is. And Caesar is not the true "son of God." Jesus is.
Also in Gabriel's third speech, the angel tells Miriam of Elizabeth's conception. Any first century Jewish person would have recognized the parallels between Elizabeth's condition and that of both Sarah (Gen 17: 7) and Hannah in the Old Testament. Elizabeth's conception, Mary would have understood, is through an action of God.
"For each word from God will not be impossible," then says Gabriel. Miriam is to understand that though her situation is some different from Elizabeth's, Sarah's, and Hannah's--she is not aged--nevertheless, her conception is from God and will happen.
Mary responded with her own "behold" statement: "Behold, a servant--doule, slave--of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word." "Let it be" is genoito, (aorist, middle, optative). It implies origin, either from natural causes, or through special agency. Miriam promises non-interference in what God may be doing.
This is at the heart of Luke's purpose. The important characteristic of virginity, for Luke, is that it means the child can only be met with receptivity by human beings. We humans can do nothing to bring the new age about. We can not kick it into gear, or make it happen. We may only "let it be to me."
This is indeed a great word of wisdom. "When I find myself in times of trouble / Mother Mary comes to me / Speaking words of wisdom, let it be." Letting things be is, you might say, "going with the flow."
Note also that, in Luke's other work, the book of Acts, after the resurrection of Jesus and just after his ascension, the disciples are all together and among their number are "certain women," and Miriam, "the mother of Jesus," and his brothers.
As Mary was present, obviously, at the birth of Jesus, so Mary is also present at the birth of the church. She is the human link between these two miraculous births.
Image: Annunciation, John Collier
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Translation: A man sent from God happened, his name John. He came to witness so that he might bear witness to the light so that all might faith through him. He himself was not the light, but so that he might witness to the light.
This is the witness of John when the Judeans sent priests and Levites out of Jerusalem so that they might question him, "Who are you?" He declared without any qualification, avowing, "I am not the Christ." And they questioned him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" And he said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" And he answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? so that we might give an answer for the ones who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He declared, "I am a voice crying out in the wilderness: 'Make straight the path of the Lord," just as Isaiah the prophet said.
And they had been sent from the pharisees. They asked him and said to him, "Then why are you baptizing if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them saying, "I baptize in water. Among you stands one you do not know, the one coming after me. I am surely not worthy so that I might loose the thong of a sandal."
This happened in Bethany on the other side of the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Background and situation: The themes of the four Sundays in Advent are usually second coming, two John the Baptists, and one Mary. This is the third Sunday in Advent so, therefore, we are on our second Adventian emphasis on John the Baptist, this one from the fourth gospel.
The opening verses of the text are from the famous prologue. Anything in the prologue is of great importance, and these three verses (6-8), inserted right after the spectacular opening--Word, being, life, light, all things!--accent the witness of John.
John in the fourth gospel: "Witness" is an important concept all through the fourth gospel, and that is how John is presented. He is a "witness to the light." The Greek word is martureo, from which we get our word "martyr." The connection is obvious: Witnessing can lead to martyrdom. John himself is a good example.
In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), John the Baptist is linked with repentance--"a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," says Mark. That is not so in the fourth gospel. In the fourth gospel, John's only mission is to point to Christ.
Verse six, in Greek, begins with egeneto--"it happened." The use of egeneto subtly underlines the importance of the statement. Literally speaking, John "happened," or even John "began to exist." Then, he "was sent"--apostalmenos. (The noun "apostle" never appears in the fourth gospel, but the verb form occurs many times. The author of the fourth gospel prefers active mission over sedentary titles.)
John was sent "from--para--God." Prepositions can be tricky in Greek, but of the options available to the author of the fourth gospel, it is interesting that he chose para here instead of ek or apo. Ek means "out of," apo "away from." Para, however, means "from the side of." Its use here indicates that the witness of John has its source or origin in God. John may not be the light, but his witness to the light comes from God.
John bears witness to the light so that "all might faith through him." In Greek, the word for "faith" is pisteuein, which is a verb. "Faith" used as a verb sounds funny in English so we usually translate pisteuein as "believe" instead.
This is unfortunate because the biblical concept of "faith" is not the same thing as "believe." Faith is "radical trust," an orientation of one's entire being. "Believe" usually means intellectual assent--(like putting a check mark beside every phrase of the Apostles' Creed, then faxing it to heaven so you can be "saved.") The author of the fourth gospel could care less about "intellectual assent." He's not into head games. He's after commitment.
"Jews" vs. "Judeans": Notice, too, that while John was sent by God, and his witness comes from God, the "priests and Levites" were sent from the Judeans, who came out of Jerusalem. (The NRSV translation of ioudaioi as "Jews" is mistaken. The word was not translated as "Jews" until after the Bar Kochva Revolt which began in AD 132--forty years after the writing of the fourth gospel.)
This has been a costly mistake. The overwhelming majority of uses of ioudaioi in the New Testament occur in the fourth gospel. When the word is translated as "the Jews," it sounds like the indictment of an entire people.
That is clearly not the author of the fourth gospel's intent, as anyone with any familiarity with the fourth gospel and the world of its time would surely know. It is absurd to suggest that "the Jews" as a people opposed Jesus. How, then, would you explain his overwhelming popularity with the people, nearly all of them Jews? "The Jews" loved Jesus but they hated him too? The author of the fourth gospel was not schizophrenic.
The fourth gospel is not an argument between Christians and Jews. It's an argument between Jews and Jews--specifically, "Judean" Jews and Galilean Jews. The former opposed the Jesus movement, and the latter supported it. For the author of the fourth gospel, "Judean" stands for an entire mindset and worldview. "Judeans" support heirarchy, division between "the chosen" and everyone else, the financial and religious "establishment," and collaboration with Rome.
Note well: John "was sent" from God. The "priests and Levites" "were sent" only from the Judeans. Right off the bat, the author of the fourth gospel gives us a preview of a theme that will resound all through the book. (Curious, too, that the "Judeans" were audacious enough to send representatives "across the Jordan," which was outside their territory.)
The "voice": John denies that he is the Christ. The denial is even more pronounced in Greek. The fourth gospel has many instances where Jesus says ego eimi--literally, "I am." This is the Greek equivalent of God's Holy Name in Hebrew, YHWH.
When John says he is not the Christ, the Greek construction is ego ouk eimi--I am not. Given the point of view of the whole fourth gospel, this is an emphatic denial.
Neither is John the prophet Elijah or any other prophet. The gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, says that John was Elijah. That's because Matthew's agenda was different than that of the author of the fourth gospel. For Matthew, Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. He is the culmination of the tradition.
For the author of the fourth gospel, however, Jesus needs no established authority for any kind of validation, and neither does John. Jesus the Word was "in the beginning," after all, which precedes all tradition, and John was sent by God. He is not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor a prophet, and he doesn't care. Sent by God, he does not need to present credentials. Outside the traditional channels, he is a "voice."
The pharisees enter the picture, which ratchets up the tension. Although the fourth gospel gives an impression that Jesus had at least some support among the pharisees, they would also prove to be some of his primary opponents.
This would be even more true at the time of the writing of the fourth gospel. By AD 80 or so, after the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-70, the pharisees were the only major Jewish tradition left standing. After AD 70, the pharisees, for the first time in their history, were a majority of the Sanhedrin. (Rather like the old Soviets, they re-wrote their history to say that they were really in charge all along.)
John responds to the interrogations of the pharisees by telling them they do not "know" the one coming after. The fourth gospel will consistently portray the enemies of Jesus as not "knowing." This is not surprising since "the world" did not "know" Jesus either (1:10). That said, the author of the fourth gospel felt it necessary to assert, at the first mention of the word "pharisee," that they do not "know."
John then asserts his own unworthiness in relationship to the one "coming after." All four gospels are careful to put the Baptist in an inferior position to Jesus.
John was baptizing in water. Water is one of the richest symbols in humanity. Virtually every culture and religion in the world has a primal water rite of some kind. Symbolically, water is feminine. (There's a reason women are more comfortable with bodily fluids than are men.)
Water is powerful. Water can sweep over the land and wash it away. Set something in water long enough, and the water will break it down. Water is a dissolving element. (There's a reason we refer to baptism as a death.)
While John baptizes in water, Jesus "will baptize with the holy spirit. (1:33)" Water brings death, spirit brings new life. Both are essential aspects of re-birth. "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit," said Jesus (3:5).
Image: St. John the Baptist, Donatello