Sunday, January 25, 2015

FREE Biblical Studies Conference in Beautiful Santa Maria, CA

Come join John Kincaid and me for a special Bible Conference at St. Louis de Montfort Catholic Church in beautiful Santa Maria, California, this coming February 21, 2015. The event is free. I've posted the flyer for the conference below.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The "Mummy Mark" fragment: Major find or modern post-it note fromMorton Smith?

Last week, ran an interview with Craig Evans in which he spoke about the discovery of what is claimed to be the earliest copy of a text from Mark's Gospel. According to Evans, the text was retrieved from an ancient Egyptian mummy mask.

A number of major news outlets are now running reports on the story (CNN, Washington Post, FoxNews, etc.).

To be fair, there are some incoherent elements of the report. As P.J. Williams has said, "I am not even confident that we can use it with any accuracy as a source for what Craig Evans has said." I'll talk about some of the problems below.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Drop What You're Doing and Come Now! Readings for 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

In my house, not everyone comes for dinner when called.  “It’s dinner time!  Come for dinner!” I’ll call up the stairs, but only a spattering of children materializes in the kitchen—maybe three or four, but where are all the others?  So I have to search the house to find them in various corners, engrossed in some activity—reading, building something, or typing something on their laptop.  They’ve ignored my summons, or didn’t “hear” it.  A wave of frustration sweeps over me, tempered by memories of having been the same way when I was their age.  Then the words pass my lips: “Drop what you’re doing and come now!”  We can’t postpone dinner indefinitely for everyone to finish their pet project before coming to eat.

“Drop what you’re doing and come now!” fairly well summarizes the urgency of the call to repentance that forms the major theme of the Readings for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time.  The Scriptures have been chosen to emphasize the need for an immediate response to the call of God.

We begin with a reading from the Prophet Jonah:

The Earliest Christian Teaching on Abortion

From sometime in the first (or early second) century A.D.:

“There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and great is the difference between these two ways. And now this is the way of life: First, you shall love God, who made you

The second commandment of the teaching is:
You shall not murder;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not corrupt children;
you shall not be sexually immoral;
you shall not steal;
you shall not practice magic;
you shall not engage in sorcery;
you shall not murder a child in an abortion
nor shall you kill one that is born.”
(Greek ou phoneuseis teknon en pthora oude gennēthen apokteneis)

--Didache 1:1, 2:1-2 (My translation)

Notice here that the Didache uses the term “murder” (Greek phoneuō) when speaking about the destruction of the “child” (Greek teknon) in the womb. This word—unlike the more general word for "kill" (Greek apokteinō)—is taken directly from the Septuagint version of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not murder” (Greek ou phoneuseis) (Exod 20:15). In this way, the Didache roots its teaching against abortion directly in the second tablet of the Decalogue regarding love of neighbor.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Watson on Augustine

I am currently reading Francis Watson's recent book, Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013). The book is stimulating and I hope to have the opportunity to say a few things about it here in the coming weeks. 

Let me just highlight one aspect of Watson's treatment which I quite like, namely, the insistence on respecting Augustine's commitment to close readings of the text. 

At one point, while disagreeing with Augustine's proposed solutions to the "synoptic problem", Watson insists, "his proposed solutions do not deserve the contempt with which they are often dismissed" (22). 

He highlights, for example, B.F. Streeter's derision of Augustine's argument for Markan posteriority (i.e., that Mark abbreviated Matthew and Luke), who claimed that,
"only a lunatic would leave out Matthew's account of the Infancy, the Sermon on the Mount, and practically all the parables. . ." (23; citing The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins [London: Macmillan, 1930), 158). 
In response, Watson wryly notes, 
"The possibility of a later gospel lacking precisely the items specified by Streeter is demonstrated by the Gospel of John, whose author Streeter views not as a lunatic. . ." (23). 
It is refreshing to read a book by a scholar who takes Augustine seriously as an exegete. Though he certainly takes issue with some of Augustine's moves, it is nice to see Augustine engaged on exegetical grounds. For once, Augustine isn't simply dismissed as a systematic theologian whose work is irrelevant to contemporary biblical scholarship.

In fact, Watson recognizes that, for Augustine, exegetical and theological interests went hand-in-hand:
There isn sense here that, as a merely scholarly project, the study of gospel origins lies outside the concerns of the Christian community. Augustine knows of no such dichotomy between scholarship and the church. Elsewhere, in his great hermeneutical treatise, De Doctrina Christiana, he develops a comprehensive biblical hermeneutic in which he texts' theological rationale--which is to promote the love of God and neighbor--is given pride of place, but in which scholarly procedures such as textual criticism and exegesis of the Greek and Hebrew texts are also eloquently advocated. An ongoing investigation of gospel origins would be entirely at home within the ethos of this generously inclusive hermeneutics. (22)
Yes, Augustine was a theologian. However, he would have balked at any suggestion that doing theology was somehow separable from careful biblical exegesis. 

Watson writes, 
It is true that Augustine is acutely conscious of differences of wording, and trains his reader to notice them and to take them seriously. He never complains that critics of the gospels are forcing him to attend to minutiae that are really beneath his notice, distracting him from his great work on the doctrine of the trinity. Gospel differences are not minutiae noted only by the malicious. On the contrary, they are objective features of the sacred texts, indeed they constitute the individuality of these texts, and they are therefore worthy of attention. While some of the differences Augustine discusses are well-known problems treated by earlier Christian writers, in most cases they seem to reflect his own independent research. (Watson, Gospel Writing, 28-29).
Attention to biblical "minutiae"? Careful biblical research that goes beyond the questions merely asked (and answered) by others? 

Would that all theologians were more like Augustine! 

B. H. Streeter, Tell Us How You Really Feel about Competing Synoptic Problem Hypotheses

B. H. Streeter's work, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (London: Macmillan, 1930), may be the single most consequential work of 20th century biblical scholarship for establishing what is now widely known as the "Two-Source Hypothesis": the idea that Matthew and Luke are literarily independent of one another and that they both relied on Mark and "Q" as two key sources for their respective Gospels.
                                                                     B. H. Streeter

Streeter: Sure, Augustine's Theory Works, if Mark was a "Lunatic"

In The Four Gospels, Streeter has some remarkably harsh words for Augustine's (much earlier) theory that Mark published his Gospel after Matthew and was in fact Matthew's "abbreviator" (Latin breviator):

"Augustine did not possess a Synopsis of the Greek text conveniently printed in parallel columns. Otherwise a person of his intelligence could not have failed to perceive that, where the two Gospels are parallel, it is usually Matthew, and not Mark, who does the abbreviation.... [O]nly a lunatic would leave out Matthew's account of the Infancy, the Sermon on the Mount, and practically all the parables, in order to get room for purely verbal expansion of what was retained." (Streeter, The Four Gospels, 158).

Streeter: Sure, Luke Could have Used Matthew and Mark, if He Was a "Crank"

We find similarly rhetoric when Streeter turns his guns on the theory that Luke used both Matthew and Mark (a form of what is today known as the 'Farrer' Hypothesis). 

"If then Luke derived this material [the Temptation narrative] from Matthew, he must have gone through both Matthew and Mark so as to discriminate with meticulous precision between Marcan and non-Marcan material; he must then have proceeded with the utmost care to tear every little piece of non-Marcan material he desired to use from the context of Mark in which it appeared in Matthew--in spite of the fact that contexts in Matthew are always exceedingly appropriate--in order to re-insert it into a difference context of Mark having no special appropriateness. A theory which would make an author capable of such a proceeding would only be tenable if, on other grounds, we had reason to believe he was a crank." (Streeter, The Four Gospels, 183)

I can't help but wonder if such hyperbolic rhetoric played a key role in making it very unfashionable to hold any theory that posited Mark or Luke's uses of Matthew as a source. 

After all, who wants to side with a "lunatic" or a "crank"? 

For a response to the latter criticism, see Marc Goodacre's brilliant study, The Case Against Q (London: T. & T. Clark, 2002).

Thursday, January 08, 2015

"He Will Baptize You With the Holy Spirit": Readings for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

This Sunday the Church celebrates the Baptism of Jesus, an event that is every bit as important as it is rich in meaning, and this week’s readings help to draw us deeper into the mystery of Christ’s baptism. While for the first and second readings, along with the responsorial psalm, there are alternative readings for this Sunday, our reflection will center on the readings put forth as the first option in the Lectionary, beginning with the first reading from Isaiah 42.

FIRST READING: Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Thus says the LORD:
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching. 
I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.
In order to properly interpret Isaiah 42, it is important to place it within the larger framework deutero-Isaiah (40-55), which famously begins with the “good news” (Isa 40:9) of Yahweh’s redemption of His people (Isaiah 40:1-11).

Yet this “good news” is offered to a people in exile who appear to doubt whether God is able to rescue them from their captivity in Babylon. However, the good news is that even though Israel has failed to trust in Yahweh’s power, he is going to bring about the salvation of his people.

Happy birthday to Matthean scholar Leroy Huizenga!

Today my friend Leroy Huizenga is celebrating his birthday. Leroy is one of the most exciting young Matthean scholars around today.

I highly recommend his monograph, The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (NovTSup 131; Leiden: Brill, 2009). The book has recently been published in paperback making it much more affordable than it had been in the past.

In short, the monograph shows that it is no coincidence that the Gospel begins with a description of Jesus as the "son of Abraham" (Matt 1:1). Throughout the Gospel, Matthew describes Jesus' mission in terms of Isaac imagery.

I learned so much from this book it is hard to write a brief post on it. In short, it highlights just how frequently the New Isaac imagery seems to appear in Matthew's Gospel, pointing out intertextual echoes that have long been largely overlooked.

For example, when the crowd comes with Judas to arrest Jesus in the garden they are specifically said to come "with swords and clubs" (meta maxairōn kai zulōn)(Matt 27:47).

The language here seems to allude to Genesis 22, where the exact same words are used to describe what Abraham takes up the mountain where Isaac is to be authored: Abraham takes the "wood" (ta xula) and the "sword / knife" (tēn machairan)(Gen 22:6).

Of course, there are many other connections that reinforce the impression that such similarities are hardly coincidental. Go get the book.

You can also read a fine article of his, "The Tradition of Christian Allegory: Yesterday and Today," here for free.

I'd also encourage you to follow him on Twitter: @LHuizenga

Happy birthday, Leroy!

Are the Titles of the Books of Scripture Canonical?

One of the questions I sometimes get from students in the Seminary is this: Are the titles of the books of the New Testament also canonical? Or only the contents?
      Along these lines, I've recently reading Bruce Metzger's classic, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford University Press, 1987). In his chapter on the closing of the canon in the West, he makes two fascinating points about early questioning of ancient book attributions by Catholic scholars. First, he points out that many of the doubts about apostolic authorship of certain books of the New Testament can be found already in the work of Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, O. P. (d. 1534). 

                                                       Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, O. P.

Unfortunately, Metzger does not give any direct quotes from Cajetan, but only points out that he  denied Pauline authorship of Hebrews and expressed "doubts" concerning James, Jude, and 2 and 3 John. 
     Second, he also notes that the the famous humanist, philosopher, theologian and Catholic priest, Desiderius Erasmus (d. 1536), likewise denied the apostolic the apostolic authorship of Hebrews and James and raised doubts about 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and Jude. 

                                                              Erasmus of Rottersdam

What surprised me most was this: despite Erasmus' reputation for being a 'free-thinking' humanist, in the wake of criticisms for raising doubts about the authorship of various books of the New Testament, he apparently responded as follows: "If the Church were to declare the titles they bear to be as canonical as their contents, then I would condemn my doubts, for the opinion formulated by the Church has more value in my eyes than human reasons, whatever they may be." (Erasmus of Rottersdam; cited in Metzger, 1987, p. 241). 

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Who are the Magi? (And are they "Three Kings"?)

One of the most puzzling questions in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' Nativity is the question of the identity of the Magi. Who exactly are they? From what country do they come? The actual information given to us by Matthew is pretty slim:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1)

Who are these "wise men" (magoi)? And where exactly is "the east" (apo anatolon)?

What are "Magi"?
The answer to the first question is fairly simple. The Greek word magos is a rather common term for a "wise man" or "sage" who were renowned for various forms of knowledge, such as the ability to interpret dreams (Daniel 2) or interpret the stars (Josephus Antiquities 10.195, 216). By the first century, the term also came to have negative connotations, and was applied to what we would call "sorcerers" or, of course, "magicians" (think here of Bar-Jesus, the Jewish "false prophet" and "magician" of Acts 13:6). In any given case, context determines whether the meaning is positive or negative.

Are the Magi from Persia, Babylon, or Arabia?
When it comes to the question of the exact nationality of the Magi, the answer is far less clear (see W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, Matthew, 1.227-28). Even in ancient times, the Church Fathers were fairly evenly split between three opinions as to the national origins of the Magi:

1. Persia (Clement of Alexandrian, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Leo the Great)
This view has in its favor the fact that the Persians were known for interpreting dreams, as in the religion of Zoroastrianism.

2. Babylon (Jerome, Augustine)
This view is supported by the explicit presence of Babylonian magi in the book of Daniel (see 2:2-10), as well as the fact that Babylon is certainly to "the east" of the holy land.

3. Arabia (Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, Epiphanius)
In my opinion, the strongest position is that the Magi are from Arabia. The primary strength of this view is because, as John pointed out in earlier post on Epiphany, Matthew's statements that the Magi "fell down and worshiped" the infant Christ and brought "gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh" (Matt 2:11) appear to be deliberate allusions to Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, in which Gentile kings from Arabia come to the new Jerusalem and do homage to the king of Israel:

And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising... [T]he wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come.  They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. (Isaiah 60:3, 6)

Give the king thy justice, O God, and thy righteousness to the royal son! ...[M]ay the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him! (Psalm 72:1, 10-11)

What about "We Three Kings"?
Where then do we get the common tradition of associating the Magi with "three kings"? It is worth noting here that this tradition does not seem to be a 'myth' made up out of thin air (as one of my family members suggested over the Christmas break!). Instead, it is an intertextual inference drawn from Matthew's allusions to the fulfillment of the prophecies in Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72, in which  Gentile "kings" from Arabia would bring gifts to the new Jerusalem and worship the Messiah.

Indeed, since ancient times, the Church Fathers picked up on these connections between Matthew's account and the Old Testament, and many Fathers deduced from them that the Magi were not simply "wise men" but also pagan "kings" coming to worship the true King. Apparently, the idea of three kings is also inferred from the three gifts given by the Magi to Jesus: "gold, frankincense, and myrrh" (Matt 2:11).

The Magi and the Israelitica Dignitas
In closing, it may be the case that Matthew's vague description of the Magi as being "from the East" is deliberate, insofar as he is not so much interested in their exact nationality but in the fact that they are Gentiles seeking the "king of the Jews". This is the primary significance that the Church has drawn from the coming of the Magi, seeing in them the first Gentiles to recognize the kingship of Jesus. In the words of the Catechism: 

The Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Savior of the world... In the magi, representatives of the neighboring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations. Their coming means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Savior of the world only by turning toward the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament. The Epiphany shows that “the full number of the nations” now takes its “place in the family of the patriarchs,” and acquires Israelitica dignitas (are made “worthy of the heritage of Israel”). (CCC 528)

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Doug Campbell on Paul's authorship of Ephesians

I am currently reading Douglas A. Campbell recent monograph on Paul, entitled, Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014). Campbell is recognized as one of the most influential Pauline scholars writing today and so, as with any new book from his pen, this new publication is receiving a great deal of attention.

In particular, Campbell is known for offering bold and original readings of Paul. In that regard, Framing Paul does not disappoint. It contains much material worth talking (and blogging!) about. (See T. J. Lang's post on Chris Tilling's blog).

However, since the Second Reading in this Sunday's lectionary offering is taken from the Letter to the Ephesians, I'd like to take a moment to mention the important contribution Campbell makes to the study of this letter.

Friday, January 02, 2015


The Christmas season is just one joyful feast after another.  We are scarcely past the glow from the Holy Family and Mary, Mother of God, when Epiphany is already upon us!

The word “Epiphany” comes from two Greek words: epi, “on, upon”; and phaino, “to appear, to shine.” Therefore, the “Epiphany” refers to the divinity of Jesus “shining upon” the earth, in other words, the manifestation of his divine nature.

The use of the word “epiphany” for the revelation of divinity predates Christianity.  The Syrian (Seleucid) emperor Antiochus IV (reign 175-165 BC), the villainous tyrant of 1-2 Maccabees, named himself “Epiphanes,” because he considered himself the manifestation of divinity on earth.  His people called him “Epimanes,” which means roughly “something is pressing on the brain,” in other words, “insane.”  Antiochus eventually died in defeat; apparently mankind would need to wait for a different king to be the “Epiphany” of divinity.

1.  Our First Reading is taken from Isaiah 60:1-6:

Thursday, January 01, 2015

The Holy Family as an Earthly Image of the Trinity

Happy Feast of Mary Theotokos!

During the Christmas break--and yes, it is still Christmas! (which means I'm still building Legos with my kids)--I've been reading through the 16th-17th century Jesuit Cornelius A Lapide's commentary on the Gospels. This commentary, popularly known as The Great Commentary, is a masterpiece of post-Reformation biblical scholarship that should be read by every modern New Testament scholar and, frankly, anyone interested in the history of Gospel interpretation. The commentary on the Gospel of Matthew alone is 1200 pages! (For New Testament scholars, A Lapide's commentary is basically a 16th century 'Davies and Allison'.).

Jim West does the December 2014 round up of biblioblogs

Here. As usual, it's well done. Grateful to have been included.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Top Academic Reads of 2014 (Updated)

UPDATE: After some reflection, I've added two more titles that definitely belong on the list. See below. 

As we wrap up 2014, I wanted to pull together a list of some of my favorite reads of the year. This is always painful--there were so many great books I read this year. But in order to keep this post short and meaningful (a list of 10 is just going to be too long), I'm going to list 5 7 of the most important books I read this year.

Two caveats: 

1. Notice I said these are five "of the most important books". I can't say for sure these are the most important books; I've just left too many good ones off the list that I easily could have included. If I had to come with the list of the five most important books, I'd agonize over it for so long I'd never be able to  finish this post. 

2. Not all of these books were released this year--but they were still new to me. 

With those caveats in place, here are my picks.

Did Jesus deliberately misquote the Old Testament?

This is the second post in a few days in which I'm "exploring our matrix"--that is, interacting with a blog post by James McGrath.

In a post, "Was Jesus Wrong on Purpose?," James looks at the story in Mark 2 where Jesus appears to misremember the Old Testament.

In particular, Jesus defends his disciples' action of plucking grain on the Sabbath by referring to a story recorded in 1 Samuel:
And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” (Mark 2:25-26)
The problem is, the story Jesus references involves Ahimelech, not Abiathar.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Were the titles of the Gospels added later? The implications of thegenre question

James McGrath has kindly linked over to a post I wrote a while back in which I briefly mention an article by Simon Gathercole. Gathercole meticulously examines the extant manuscripts of the Gospels and demonstrates that there is no textual evidence--not a shred!--to support the commonly held scholarly theory that the titles of the Gospels were added later.

James' post also includes a link back to a previous post he wrote on the topic. He had posted on the article long before I had.

In his earlier piece, James expresses openness to the possibility that the titles were original. He says,
It seems that, when the earliest texts are considered and both types of titles are considered, it may be that the widespread idea that the Gospels were originally anonymous may need to be discarded.
I have enjoyed reading James' thoughts on this.

There is one key dimension of the issue of the authorship question he doesn't mention though that I'd like to raise here.

"The Second Annunciation": The Gospel Reading for the Feast of the Holy Family

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. There are a number of options available in the lectionary for the first and second readings, and so, to simplify matters, I am just going to offer a brief post on the single Gospel reading that we will all here. 

GOSPEL: Luke 2:22-40
When the days were completed for their purification
according to the law of Moses,
They took him up to Jerusalem
to present him to the Lord,
just as it is written in the law of the Lord,
Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,
and to offer the sacrifice of
a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,
in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.
This man was righteous and devout,
awaiting the consolation of Israel,
and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit
that he should not see death
before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.
He came in the Spirit into the temple;
and when the parents brought in the child Jesus
to perform the custom of the law in regard to him,
He took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
—and you yourself a sword will pierce—
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
There was also a prophetess, Anna,
the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.
She was advanced in years,
having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage,
and then as a widow until she was eighty-four.
She never left the temple,
but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.
And coming forward at that very time,
she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child
to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions
of 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 favor of God was upon him.
Much could be said about this reading. Here let me offer four thoughts.

1. The story stresses the Holy Family's obedience to Torah. 

According to the Old Testament, after a woman gave birth she was ritually unclean (cf. Lev. 12:1-5). In order to be purified, a sacrifice was required (Lev. 12:6-8). By telling us that they went up to Jerusalem, Luke is actually depicting Mary and Joseph as Torah observant Jews. The Holy Family, therefore, is presented as the model of obedience to God's Law.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Stephen: The Christ-Like Martyr

Yours truly at the traditional site of
St. Stephen's tomb. 
Happy Feast of St. Stephen! I have always loved the story of St. Stephen in the book of Acts - so much so, in fact, we named our second son after him: Matthew Stephen.

The book of Acts describes Stephen as a "Christ-like" figure.

As I have explained elsewhere on this blog, this coheres with a larger theme of the book of Acts--Luke describes the life of the early Church in terms similar to the life of Christ in the Gospel of Luke. The message is clear: Christ is continuing to live in his Church. (Go here for more on that).

Like Jesus, then, Stephen is arrested, made to stand before the ruling council, accused by false witnesses of claiming Jesus would destroy the temple (a charge leveled against Jesus at his trial in Matthew and Mark), questioned by the high priest, and executed.

The climactic moment of Jesus’ trial is Jesus' response to the high priest in which he explains that Caiaphas will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven (Luke 22:69–70). After this, of course, he is condemned to death (Luke 22:71).

In the book of Acts, Stephen’s trial climaxes with a similar statement: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).

After this, Stephen is martyred.

Moreover, Stephen is even described as being like Jesus in death. Just before dying Jesus prays, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). Stephen likewise prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).

Furthermore, when Jesus is crucified he prays, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Similarly, Stephen prays for his accusers: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Notably, Acts goes on to describe the conversion of one of those who was involved in his murder, namely, Saul/St. Paul (cf. Acts 7:58; 8:1).

St. Augustine famously attributed great efficacy to Stephen's prayer, saying, “Had Stephen not prayed, the Church today would have no Paul” (Sermon on the Nativity of St. Stephen 6, 5).

I'll end this post with a quote from Benedict XVI:
The life of St. Stephen is entirely shaped by God, conformed to Christ, whose passion is repeated in him; in the final moment of death, on his knees, he takes up the prayer of Jesus on the cross, trusting in the Lord (Acts 7:59) and forgiving his enemies: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (60). Filled with the Holy Spirit, as his eyes are about to close, he fixed his gaze on "Jesus standing at the right hand of God" (55), the Lord of all, who draws all to him. 
On St. Stephen’s Day, we are called to fix our gaze on the Son of God, who, in the joyful atmosphere of Christmas, we contemplate in the mystery of his incarnation. . . Allowing ourselves be drawn by Christ, like St. Stephen, means opening our lives to the light that calls, directs and makes us walk the path of good, the path of humanity, according to God’s loving plan. (Angelus address, December 26, 2012)[source]

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"For unto us a child is born": Readings for Christmas Mass at Midnight

The lectionary readings for the Christmas mass at midnight focus on the coming of the glory of God in the person of Christ.

Of course, in scripture, God's glory is often associated with the imagery of "light" and "splendor".

As we celebrate the eucharist in the middle of the night ("midnight"), we reflect on the coming of the one who is the "light of the world".

The darkness of night helps us reflect on the state of humanity before the Incarnation. As our first reading explains, we "walked in darkness".

In Christ, we have "seen a great light".

Yet the lectionary selections are also meant to lead us to reflect upon the way Christians are still awaiting the dawning of the day when the fullness of Christ's glory will be revealed; as the Second Reading reminds us, we await "the blessed hope of the appearance" of Christ at the end of time.

The light "has come" yet it is also "still to come" in its fullness. The darkness has not yet been finally vanquished. (Anyone who has been to the mall this season is painfully aware of that!)

With all of this in mind, let us turn to our readings.

Christmas Readings for the Day

It's almost here!  I thought I would post on the Readings for Christmas Day at Dawn and Noon:

Mass at Dawn

1. Reading 1 Is 62:11-12
See, the LORD proclaims
to the ends of the earth:
say to daughter Zion,
your savior comes!
Here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
They shall be called the holy people,
the redeemed of the LORD,
and you shall be called “Frequented,”
a city that is not forsaken.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mystery Now Revealed: The Fourth Sunday in Advent

In this fourth Sunday of Advent, the Church calls us to contemplate the mystery kept secret from ages past that is now revealed. In fact, while this mystery was kept secret, it is also paradoxically found within the pages of the Old Testament, including in our first reading from 2 Samuel 7.

FIRST READING: 2 Sam 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16
When King David was settled in his palace,
and the LORD had given him rest from his enemies on every side,
he said to Nathan the prophet,
“Here I am living in a house of cedar,
while the ark of God dwells in a tent!”
Nathan answered the king,
“Go, do whatever you have in mind,
for the LORD is with you.”
But that night the LORD spoke to Nathan and said:
“Go, tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD:
Should you build me a house to dwell in?’ 
“It was I who took you from the pasture
and from the care of the flock
to be commander of my people Israel.
I have been with you wherever you went,
and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.
And I will make you famous like the great ones of the earth.
I will fix a place for my people Israel;
I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place
without further disturbance.
Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict them as they did of old,
since the time I first appointed judges over my people Israel.
I will give you rest from all your enemies.
The LORD also reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever.”
In 2 Samuel 7, the Church puts before us one of the most significant passages in the Old Testament, for in it God enters into an everlasting covenant with the house of David. While the term “covenant” is not found in the passage, the content of a covenant is, and in this case, a certain kind of covenant.

In the Ancient Near East, covenants established kinship bonds between previously unrelated people by means of solemn oath taking and ritual enactment. While covenant making could take different shapes, Scott Hahn has helpfully suggested that covenant making falls into three basic categories: kinship (between equals), treaty, and grant.[1]

Christmas as a retelling of Egyptian Mythology? Maybe not (VIDEO)

H/T JP Catholic student Anna Rossi on Facebook

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Congratulations to Michael Bird!

Michael's book, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Eerdmans) has just won Christianity Today's 2015 book award in the category of biblical studies.

This is great news. And it couldn't happen to a better scholar.

Michael's has done some excellent work on the historical Jesus and I hope the attention this book is getting will also inspire others to pick up his other books as well.

His monograph, Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission (Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2007), is a learned study and a model of academic erudition. In addition, his book, Are You the One Who Is to Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Eerdmans, 2009), is a wonderfully balanced study.

So I must confess that I am praising these works because I have not yet read his latest. It has been sitting on the top of my guilt pile but because my recent work has focused more on Pauline studies I haven't been able to get to it.

Brant Pitre, in particular, has been urging me to read it.

And so I look forward to reading it though over the Christmas break. It'll be my reward for finishing grading.

Get your copy, here and let me know what you think.