Biblical Criticism


Note of the Day – June 20

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In yesterday’s note, partly in commemoration of the traditional feast of Corpus Christi (first Sunday after Trinity), I examined the New Testament expression of “breaking (of) bread” (as in Acts 2:42, 46; Luke 24:35, etc) in relation to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) in the early Church. There is one other major passage where this image occurs—the miraculous feeding of the multitude by Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. The tradition surrounding this miracle is unique in that: (a) it is one of the only episodes recorded in all four Gospels (the Synoptics and John); (b) it is one of the only instances where something like the same narrative occurs twice in the same Gospel (Matthew/Mark). For this reason (among others), it proves to be an interesting ‘test case’ in terms of how early Gospel traditions may have developed, as well as being illustrative of the key differences between traditional-conservative and critical viewpoints in this regard.

I will divide the discussion into three main sections, each of which will be treated in a daily note:

  • Survey of the passages, with a brief study of the source-critical and historical-critical questions
  • A more detailed comparative study of the narratives
  • An examination of the Eucharistic elements of the traditional narrative—their possible origins and influence in the early Church

Today’s note will is devoted to the first of these—namely, a survey of the passages, study of key source-critical and historical-critical questions. To begin with, a miraculous feeding of five thousand men (plus women and children) is narrated in Mark 6:30-44, Matthew 14:13-21, Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-15. As will be seen, all four narratives are quite close, both in outline and much detail as well; typically the the three Synoptic accounts are extremely close, while there are more substantial differences between the Synoptics and John. This brings up two separate, but related, source-critical questions:

  1. What is the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels?
  2. What is the relationship between the Synoptics and John?

The first question is usually addressed in the wider context of the so-called “Synoptic Problem”—how to explain the substantial agreement (including wording, order, other detail) between two and/or all three Synoptic Gospels. Today, there is a rough consensus among many (if not most) critical scholars that corresponds with the so-called “Two-Document” and “Markan priority” hypotheses, according to which:

  • Mark was written first, and both Matthew and Luke made (extensive) use of Mark, including the overall narrative plan and arrangement.
  • Matthew and Luke also made use of a second major (written) source, primarily consisting of blocks of Jesus’ sayings and teachings—this is the so-called “Q” source. Usually this is assumed to be a distinct written document, but it is perhaps safer to refer to it more generally as a collection of shared tradition(s).
  • Matthew and Luke also each made use of other sources—collections of tradition, whether written or oral—not found in the other Gospels, and often labeled “M” and “L” respectively.

While not without difficulties, this does, I believe, represent a reasonably sound working hypothesis. At the very least, if Matthew and Luke did not make use of Mark, then they must have made use of an early Gospel framework very similar in both content and arrangement. In particular, the position of the feeding miracle within the overall Gospel framework is similar between the Synoptics. Assuming, for the moment, the “Markan priority” hypothesis, here is the position of the episode in Mark:

1. Mk 6:1-6: The rejection of Jesus at Nazareth (saying in v. 4)
2. Mk 6:7-13: Jesus’ sending out of the Twelve (saying/commission in vv. 10-11)
3. Mk 6:14-29: Herod and the death of John the Baptist
4. Mk 6:30-44: The feeding of the Five thousand
5. Mk 6:45-52: Episode at sea—Jesus walking on water (reference to the feeding miracle in v. 52)
6. Mk 6:53-56: Summary references to healing miracles by Jesus
7. Mk 7:1-23: Sayings of Jesus in context of disputes with Pharisees and Scribes (at least two blocks of sayings, vv. 6-13 and 14b-23)
8. Mk 7:24-37: Two healing miracles

If we compare the position in the Gospel of Matthew, it is nearly identical; the only structural difference is that Jesus’ commission and sending out the Twelve occurs somewhat earlier (Matt 10:5ff) and serves as the introduction and narrative focus for a lengthy block of sayings vv. 16-42 added to the portion (vv. 5-15) he presumably inherited from Mark. The arrangement in the Gospel of Luke differs even more considerably:

  • The story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth occurs earlier (at the beginning of his ministry), and in different/expanded form, in Lk 4:16-30
  • The material corresponding to Mark 6:45-8:26 for the most part is not found in Luke; as a result the confession of Peter, Jesus’ first Passion prediction (with related sayings), and the Transfiguration (Lk 9:18-36) follow immediately after the miraculous feeding episode in Lk 9:10-17

Notable differences between the Synoptic accounts of the feeding of the Five thousand will be mentioned in the comparative study in the next day’s note.

The second question (see above) has to do with the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels and John. Even though there is relatively little common material between John and the Synoptics, scholars have at times proposed that the author of the fourth Gospel utilized one (or more) of the other three. For example, there are some notable details in common between the Passion/Resurrection narratives of Luke and John, but other (apparent) minor points of agreement as well. However, in my view, most of these similarities are best explained by a shared common tradition rather than literary borrowing. I would concur with a good number of scholars today that there is very little (if any) clear evidence that the author of the fourth Gospel even knew (let alone used) any of the other three Gospels. At least one strand of evidence to this effect will be presented in the comparative study offered in the next day’s note. This means that, if we take Mark as the earliest Synoptic (and partial exemplar for the other two), then, at several key points, the Gospels of Mark and John are both drawing from an early tradition (or block of tradition), such as that involving the feeding of the Five thousand. By all accounts the “common portion” shared by John here is modest, limited to the traditions corresponding to Mark 6:30-52.

There is a far more serious historical-critical issue related to these passages, one which demonstrates a rather clear divide between traditional-conservative and critical approaches to the Gospels. The difficulty can be summarized by the fact that, in the Gospel of Mark (and in Matthew) there are two different miraculous feedings which are largely identical, differing mainly in specific vocabulary and other detail. This second episode is a feeding of Four (instead of Five) thousand men, as narrated in Mark 8:1-10 (par Matthew 15:32-39). The traditional-conservative view would tend to take these at face value as separate historical episodes; however, the number of similarities makes this hard to maintain in the light of objective analysis. The critical view would generally hold that these are separate versions of the same episode which have been preserved in different form; but there are difficulties with this view as well, as we shall see. Critical scholars are most reluctant to harmonize differences and discrepancies in Scriptural narrative by positing separate (similar, or nearly identical) events. For example, because of the different apparent chronology between John and the Synoptics, some traditional-conservative commentators would hold that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice; however, I regard this as highly unlikely—apart from the variant position of the episode (‘early’ vs. ‘late’), there is virtually no evidence to support a tradition of two (largely identical) Temple-cleansings. The situation is more complex with the “Anointing of Jesus” episodes in the Gospels; there it is likely that we are dealing with two traditions—one represented largely by Luke 7:36-50, the other primarily by Mark 14:3-9 and the Matthean parallel. As in the case of the miraculous feeding narratives, the Johannine account shows a mixture of details found in the other versions, which is somewhat hard to explain if we are dealing with different historical events (or traditions). This will be explored in greater detail in the next note.


“Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative”

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I have regularly used the labels “Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative” as a short-hand description for two general approaches to handling and interpreting Scripture. The reality is more complex than the labels would suggest, and, of course, there is a wide middle ground of opinion and analysis; however, fundamental differences exist which are distinct enough to warrant some basic form of demarcation.


For the term “criticism” in general, I would recommend the three-part article I posted more than a year ago, introducing the subjects of Biblical Criticism and, in particular, Textual Criticism. “Criticism” of Scripture simply means informed judgment and analysis of the sacred Writings, in terms of: Text, History (and Historicity), Literary Form and Genre, Composition (and Redaction), Authorial Purpose/Intent, Development and Transmission, etc.—that is, everything meaningful which one could study and analyze about a particular literary document. All commentators engage in “criticism” at some level. What distinguishes a specific “Critical” approach, as such, to Scripture, is the willingness to apply to sacred Writings the same methods and techniques one might apply to any other writing from the ancient world. In so doing, there is no doctrinal presumption, no resort to supernatural agency in explaining how the text came to be—for the most part, entirely ordinary, natural means of production and development are assumed. On the one hand, this allows the commentator freedom in analyzing the text—every aspect (authorship, historical accuracy, theology, etc) can be examined apart from any religious doctrine regarding the text. On the other hand, this detachment can blind the commentator to the very religious and spiritual dimension which caused the text to be preserved and treated as sacred in the first place. Indeed, it is unfortunate that one can read page after page of critical commentary without any suggestion of unique, Divine inspiration (however one understands this precisely) at work in the text of Scripture.


As the label indicates, there are two aspects which I emphasize:

“Traditional”—This implies that the Christian tradition regarding the Scriptures is generally accepted, unless there is strong reason to reject it. This is opposed to the “Critical” approach, which tends to be skeptical, willing to question and examine every tradition (before accepting it outright). In particular, traditions regarding authorship (Moses for the Pentateuch, Matthew/Mark/Luke/John for the Gospels, etc), are assumed. See also the separate article on “Tradition”.

“Conservative”—Because of the highly polemical, partisan nature of this term in many circles, I use it somewhat reluctantly. I mean by it the tendency to accept—to take at face value—everything one finds in the Scriptures. This may be driven by a theological/doctrinal viewpoint, a religious/credal viewpoint, or both. Especially, when authorship is indicated in the Scriptures (e.g., Isaiah, Daniel; Paul in the “disputed” epistles [Pastorals, Ephesians]; 2 Peter), it is accepted more or less without reservation. Most controversial are questions regarding the historicity/factuality of the Old Testament and Gospel narratives; much of modern-day “apologetics” is devoted to defending the details of the Scriptural narratives against critical-skeptical ‘attacks’.

The Traditional-Critical view, at its best, demonstrates a sensitivity to the value of tradition, and to the religious/spiritual environment which produced the Scriptures (with recognition of the reality of inspiration); at its worst, however, it tends to close off important paths of inquiry, and risks distorting and misrepresenting the very sacred text it seeks to defend.

To demonstrate a basic difference between the two approaches, consider the concept of Gospel tradition in relation to the canonical Gospels which have come down to us. The Critical approach generally assumes multiple layers of development in the Gospel tradition, during which many modifications, accretions, interpretive expansions, etc. have occurred:

  • Stage 1: The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
  • Stage 2: These words and actions as described and transmitted orally among the earliest believers
  • Stage 3: Early collections of sayings and narratives (oral or written, perhaps translated into Greek)
  • Stage 4: Early Gospels (or Gospel fragments)—sayings and narratives connected within a larger framework
  • Stage 5: The sayings and narratives as recorded in the four canonical Gospels

The Traditional-Critical view, by comparison, would tend to compress these layers so that Stage 5 is more or less equivalent to Stage 1—i.e., the Gospels as we have them preserve (with minimal modification) the words and actions of Jesus just as they originally took place.

The thoughtful and sensitive student of Scripture will recognize the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches—by holding them in balance, in true humility, and under the guidance of the Spirit, we may faithfully explore and expound God’s Word in the Scriptures (and the Scriptures as God’s Word).


The Sending of the Spirit, Part 3 (Gospel of John)

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I have discussed the Pentecost Narrative of the sending/coming of the Spirit, within the context of Luke-Acts, in some detail in Parts 1 and 2 of this article. Now I will be discussing the Johannine account (20:19-23) here, as follows: First, an introductory comparison of the two accounts; second, an analysis of John 20:19-23; third, a concluding comparison of the two passages.

1. Introductory Comparison of John 20:19-23 and Acts 2:1-13 (esp. vv. 1-4):

The key points of difference are fairly obvious from a simple reading of the two texts:

  • One takes place (apparently) the day of the Resurrection, the other between 40 and 50 days later (Acts 1:3; 2:1)
  • In one the resurrected Jesus is ([meta]physically) present and visible, in the other he has departed and is no longer seen (Acts 1:9)
  • One depicts the Spirit coming through the direct (physical or metaphysical) mediation of Jesus (Jn 20:22), the other has the Spirit coming in a theophany from “out of heaven” (Acts 2:2)
  • One passage includes other elements common to the Resurrection narratives and Gospel traditions (cf. Luke 24:36-40, 47-48; Matt. 28:18-20; 16:19, etc.); the other clearly does not have these—if anything, one finds reflections of Old Testament passages (Ex. 19, etc., and related Jewish traditions).

Points of similarity, though less obvious, are notable:

  • Both occur in context of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus. If Luke had chosen to compress the Pentecost tradition into the end of the Gospel (along with the Ascension, 24:49-53), this would be even more apparent.
  • Both can be understood to occur following the “ascension” of Jesus to heaven (i.e., to the Father) (John 20:17; Acts 1:9-11)—though the precise meaning and parallel may be debated (see below).
  • Both are connected with the commission and early Christian mission of the apostles (or wider group of disciples) (John 20:21; Acts 1:8 and following).

How should we understand the relationship of these two accounts? Here are some positions adopted by commentators:

  1. Both episodes are factual/historical and are separate chronological events, just as it appears when one combines (harmonizes) the narratives. This would be the standard orthodox or traditional-conservative view. There are still difficulties and differences of interpretation, particularly in explaining John’s account; a few solutions:
    a) It describes a symbolic gift, in promise of the future sending of the Spirit.
    b) It is a real but partial gift, until the day when the Spirit will be sent in full.
    c) The gift is limited to the apostles (the ‘Twelve’), their mission and authority; at Pentecost it will be given to all the disciples.
    d) The gift is limited to the (apostolic) ‘power over sin’ (v. 23); at Pentecost it will be given in full.
  2. The episodes reflect separate, unrelated historical traditions (which may or may not be entirely factual in detail) as to when, where, and how the apostles (and other disciples) first received the Spirit. This would probably be the more common Critical view.
  3. The episodes are historical (in substance), but generally symbolic in nature—that is, two different narratives have been chosen to represent the climactic moment when the Spirit was sent.
  4. The episodes are fundamentally interpretive (theological) narratives, rather than historical/factual accounts—that is, narratives have been built up (centered on real historical tradition), and shaped by each author’s own understanding (or the understanding of a wider Christian community), as to the meaning and significance of Christ’s work, the nature of the Holy Spirit, the believer’s relation to Christ through the Spirit, and so forth.

Arguments can be, and have been, offered in favor of each of these four positions (or some variation of them)—some stronger than others. However, before any further judgment is made, let us examine John 20:19-23 in detail:

2. Analysis of John 20:19-23:

Four elements make up this brief passage:

  • Resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples (v. 19-20)
  • Jesus’ commission to the disciples (v. 21)
  • Jesus’ “breathing in” (the Spirit) to the disciples (v. 22)
  • Statement of Jesus regarding the disciples’ authority regarding forgiveness of sins (v. 23)

I  think it possible, even likely, that four short pieces of tradition have been combined, as some of them have parallels elsewhere in Gospel tradition (see below). Also, I believe, one can adapt the outline of the passage slightly to indicate a bit more clearly how the author may have fashioned this material:

  • Traditional narrative (Resurrection appearance), v. 19-20
    —Saying of Jesus (general “apostolic” commission), v. 21
  • (Traditional?) narrative (“Breathing in” the Spirit), v. 22
    —Saying of Jesus (statement of [apostolic?] authority), v. 23

Before examining each of these, I should say that it is my conviction that John 20:19-23 cannot properly be understood without consulting the Gospel elsewhere at three points:

  1. The Resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene (20:11-18, particularly vv. 16-17)
  2. References in the great “Farewell” discourses (13:31-17:26) to: (a) Jesus’ return to the Father, and (b) the sending of the Spirit/Paraclete.
  3. Other references to: (a) the Spirit,  and (b) Jesus ‘going up’ (being ‘raised up’, etc), found in the earlier discourses.

Let me touch on these in turn:

(1) The Resurrection Appearance to Mary

I have discussed this in some detail in an earlier post; here I will draw attention specifically to verse 17. The dramatic moment of recognition comes as Jesus speaks Mary’s name, and she responds with the exclamation “my Rabbi!” (yn]oBr*, an honorific title something like “my lord”, often applied to great teachers). Then follows the somewhat enigmatic verse 17:

“Jesus says to her, ‘Do not fasten (yourself) [a%ptou] to me! for I have not yet stepped up [a)nabe/bhka] toward the Father; but go toward my brothers and say to them: “I step up [a)nabai/nw] toward my Father and your Father and (to) my God and your God”.'”

Read in context, without resorting to the narrative in Luke-Acts, Jesus certainly seems to indicate that he is about to ascend (“step up”) to the Father, and that, by the time he appears to his disciples in v. 19ff, he will have “ascended”. But do John and Luke-Acts describe the same “ascension”? It must be pointed out that the Gospel of John uses a wide range of words referring to Jesus’ “ascent” and/or “departure” to the Father: a)nabai/nw (“go up”, lit. “step up”—1:51; 3:13; 6:62; 20:17); u(yo/w (“lift up [high]”—3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34); u(pa/gw (“lead/go away [lit. under ‘cover’]”—7:33; 8:14, 21-22; 13:36; 14:4-5, 28; 16:5, 10, 17); poreu/omai (“pass on, travel”—14:2-3, 12, 28; 16:7, 28); e)rxomai (“go”—17:11, 13; par. “come” [from the Father]—8:14, 42; 12:46, etc., cf. also 14:6]) and a)pe/rxomai (“go [away] from”—16:7); lamba/nw (“take [up]”—10:17, 18; a)nalamba/nw “take/receive up” was a common term for the Ascension). a)nabai/nw is used to describe [Jesus’] Ascent in Eph. 4:8-10 and Acts 2:34, both referencing Old Testament passages; Revelation also uses it frequently for heavenly ‘ascent’; and it would become much more widely used for the Ascension later on. The dualism of coming/going, above/below, so common in Johannine thought, can also be seen in the pointed juxtaposition of a)nabai/nw (“step up”) with katabai/nw (“step down”)—1:51; 3:13; 6:33, 38, 41-42, 50-51. Just as Jesus’ came from Heaven sent by the Father, so he will return to the one who sent him (the Father in Heaven). Clearly, John’s language implies something much more than a single Ascension moment or event. These passages should all be studied carefully.

(2) References in the Farewell Discourse(s)

 The main references are:

  • John 13:33: “where(ever) (o(pou) I go away (u(pa/gw), you are not able to come (e)rxomai)” (cf. 36, 7:34; 8:21)
    Related themes: the Son being glorified (doca/zw) in/with God (v. 31-32); the disciple’s seeking; the command to love one another (vv. 34-35); the disciples (Peter) following (a)kolouqe/w) (v. 36-38)
  • John 14:2ff: “I pass (on) (poreu/omai) to make ready a place for you …. I am passing (on) (poreu/omai) toward the Father (v. 12)”
    Related themes: trust (pisteu/w) in God and Christ (v. 1); the way (o(do/$) to the Father (vv. 4-5, also v. 3, 12); Jesus coming (e)rxomai) (again) to take the disciples along; “where(ever) (o(pou)” He is (v. 3-4); seeing (o(ra/w), knowing (ginw/skw) and coming (e)rxomai) to the Father (in Christ who shows [deiknu/w] Him) (vv. 4-9); “I in the Father and the Father in me” (same works, same glory) (vv. 10-12)
  • John 14:16f: “I will inquire (of) the Father and he shall give you another para/klhto$, that he might be with you into the Age, the Spirit (pneu=ma) of truth…”
    The para/klhto$/Spirit will also: “remain alongside (para/) you and shall be in (e)n) you” (v. 17)
    Related themes: love toward Christ (and keeping his commands, v. 15, 21ff); opposition to the World (ko/smo$) (v. 17, 22); seeing (qewre/w) and knowing (ginw/skw) God (and Christ) (v. 17, 19); Christ’s going and away and coming again (v. 18-19, 23); life in Christ (v. 19); “I in the Father” (along with believers) (v. 19-20); Christ sent (pe/mpw) by the Father (v. 24)
  • John 14:25-26: “the para/klhto$, the holy Spirit whom the Father will send (pe/mpw) in my name, that one shall teach you all things and shall put under [i.e. in] memory (for) you all things which I have said to you”
    Related themes: Christ will no longer remain alongside the disciples (v. 25ff)—his going away (u(pa/gw) and coming (e)rxomai) again (v. 28); Christ going (poreuomai) to the Father; peace (v. 27); love toward Christ (and the Father) (v. 28, 31); Christ’s words (v. 26, 29, 30) and commands (from God) (v. 31); opposition to the World (ko/smo$) (v. 30)
  • John 15:26-27: “when the para/klhto$, whom I shall send (pe/mpw) to you (from) alongside the Father, does come—the Spirit (pneu=ma) of truth which passes forth out (from) alongside the Father—that one shall witness about me”
    Related themes: opposition to the World (ko/smo$) (vv. 18ff, 16:2-4); love (and hatred) toward the Father and Christ (and His own) (vv. 19ff); Christ’s words (v. 20, 22; 16:4) and works (v. 24); Christ sent (pe/mw) by the Father; seeing (o(ra/w) and knowing (ei&dw/ginw/skw) Christ and God (v. 21, 24; 16:3)
  • John 16:7ff: “if I do not go away (u(pa/gw) from (you), the para/klhto$ will not come (e)rxomai) toward you; but if I pass on (poreuomai), I will send (pe/mpw) him toward you”
    The para/klhto$/Spirit will (vv. 8-15):
    “expose (e)le/gxw) the World about sin and about justice and about judgment”
    “lead you on the way (o(dhge/w) in all truth”
    “not speak from himself: whatever he hears (from God, and receives from Christ) he will speak”
    “announce (a)nagge/llw) to you the coming things… (and all that he receives from Christ)”
    Additional related themes: Christ going away (u(pa/gw) and (the Spirit) coming (e)rxomai) (v. 5, 7, 10, 13; Christ sent (pe/mpw) by the Father (v. 5); Christ going to the Father (v. 10); opposition to the Word (ko/smo$) (v. 8-11); words of Christ (v. 4, 12ff); trust (pisteu/w) in Christ (v. 9); seeing (qewre/w) Christ (v. 10); “I in the Father” (v. 15)
  • John 16:16: “a little (while) and you shall not anymore see (qewre/w) me, again a little (while) and you shall see (o)pta/nomai) me” … “again I leave (a)fi/hmi) the world and pass on (poreuomai) toward the Father (v. 28)”
    Related themes: disciples’ seeking/asking (vv. 17-19, 23ff); opposition to the World (ko/smo$) (vv. 20, 28, 33); words of Christ (v. 25, 29); peace (v. 33); love toward Christ (v. 27); Christ going/coming, esp. going to the Father (v. 17, 28); Christ sent by (“came out from alongside” e)ce/rxomai) the Father (v. 27, 30); “I in the Father…” (v. 32)
  • John 17:11ff: “I am not anymore in the World—but these are in the World—and I come toward you” … “but now I come toward you—and (yet) I these (things) I speak in the World, that they might have my joy filled (completely) in themselves (v. 13)”
    Related themes: knowing God and Christ (v. 3, 7-8); Christ sent by God (v. 3-4, 18); “I in the Father…” (shared glory, name, work) (vv. 1ff, 10); opposition to the World (vv. 6, 9ff); words of Christ (vv. 6-8, 14); Christ going/coming to the Father (vv. 11-13)

It is striking how often the same themes—the key words and phrases—occur throughout these chapters. To simplify matters, here is a thumbnail (chiastic) outline of the sections detailed above:

John 13:31-38: Jesus is going away, the disciples cannot come

John 14:1-14: Jesus is passing on to the Father, showing/preparing the way

John 14:15-24: The Father will send the Spirit/para/klhto$ (Jesus’ request)

John 14:25-31: Work of the Spirit/para/klhto$ whom the Father sends in Jesus’ name

John 15:1-17: Remain in Christ—the Vine and branches

John 15:18-16:4: Witness of the Spirit/para/klhto$ whom Jesus sends from the Father

John 16:4-15: Jesus will send the Spirit/para/klhto$ (it is necessary for Jesus to go away)

John 16:16-33: Jesus leaving (“releasing”) the World and passing on to the Father

John 17: Eternal Life with the Father—disciples to be united with Him (v. 22ff)

A couple of difficult points of interpretation in these chapters:

First, the language of going/coming seems to work on several different levels. “Going” can refer to: (1) Jesus’ death, (2) his glorification/exhaltation [going to the father], or (3) his ‘final’ earthly departure. Similarly, “coming” can reference: (1) Jesus’ coming to earth [from the Father], (2) his coming (back) to the Father, or (3) his coming (again) to the disciples, either following the resurrection or in a future return.

Second, I have chosen to leave para/klhto$ [parakl¢tos] untranslated above. Literally, it would be rendered “one called alongside”, usually in the sense of one who offers some form of assistance or encouragement. As a technical term, para/klhto$ can refer to a legal aid or advocate. Conventional translations vary—”Helper”, “Counsellor”, “Comforter”, “Advocate” being the most common. There is some uncertainty among Critical scholars as to what extent the Gospel definitively identifies the para/klhto$ with the Holy Spirit. In 14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27, the identification is clear enough, however it is possible that older language and/or traditions about a heavenly/angelic parakl¢tos have been given new meaning here. Curious also is the first reference to “another (a&llo$) para/klhto$“, implying that Jesus himself, during his earthly ministry was a first para/klhto$. Finally, note too the alternation between references where the para/klhto$ is said to be sent by the Father (14:16-17, 25-26) or sent by Christ (15:26-27; 16:7ff)—this is another example of the Gospel depicting the unity of will, purpose, power and authority of Father and Son.

(3) Other references to the Spirit,  and Jesus ‘going up’ (being ‘raised up’, etc), found in the earlier discourses

As space is limited, I would recommend careful study, in particular, of John 3:1-21, 31-36 and 6:22-71.

Returning now to John 20:19-23:

a. Resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples (v. 19-20), and the saying (v. 21)

The significance of the narrative portion (v. 19-20) can best be indicated by a comparison with the parallel account in Luke 24:36-40 (portions identical or close to that of John are italicized):

Luke 24:36-41a:

36 And at their speaking these things, he (him)self stood in their midst and said to them: “Peace to you”. 37 But startled and coming to be in fear they seemed to behold a spirit! 38 And he said to them: “(For) what are you (so) disturbed, and through what does (such) reckoning (pl.) climb up in your hearts? 39 See my hands and my feet—that it is I (my)self! Stroke me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones even as you behold me having.” 40 And (at his) having said thus, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And (in) their distrusting yet from joy and wondering…

John 20:19-20:

19 It being therefore late on the same day, on the first of the week, and the doors having been closed where the disciples were through fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood into the midst and said to them: “Peace to you.” 20 And (at his) having said thus, he showed them his hands and his side. Therefore the learners [i.e. disciples] were joyful (at their) having seen the Lord.

The language is close enough to indicate a common developed Gospel tradition (written or oral) here—one of several such agreements between Luke and John in the Resurrection narratives. It should be pointed out that a number of these agreements (including 24:40) are absent from the “Western” text of Luke (so-called Western “Non-Interpolations” see my earlier post on this topic); however the majority of scholars today accept the longer text. The reference to Jesus’ “side” rather than “feet” is likely an adaptation made to reflect the earlier narrative detail in John (19:34-37).

One could break down vv. 19-21 more narrowly, as a chiasm:

  • “Peace to you” (19)
    • Shows his hands and side; disciples’ joy (20)
  • “Peace to you” (21)

where the manifestation of Jesus’ wounds is bracketed by his two-fold greeting; or as a doublet:

  • “Peace to you” (19)
    • Shows his hands and side; disciples’ joy (20)
  • “Peace to you” (21)
    • Saying—sending the disciples

As for the saying in verse 21, it also seems to be part of a wider Gospel tradition. Compare the following:

John 20:21b:

“Even as the Father has sent (a)pe/stalke/n) me (forth), (so) also I send (pe/mpw) you”

John 17:18:

“Even as you have sent (a)pe/steila$) me into the world, (so) also I have sent (a)pe/steila) them into the world.”

John 13:20:

“Amen, Amen, I say to you: the (one) receiving (he) whom I would send (pe/mpw), receives me; and the (one) receiving me, receives the (one) having sent (pe/myanta/) me.”

Matthew 10:40:

“The (one) accepting you, accepts me; and the (one) accepting me, accepts the (one) having sent (a)postei/lanta/) me.”

John 13:20 and Matthew 10:40 are very close in form and meaning, if not actual wording. The Gospel of John has another pair of similar sayings (12:44-45), along with many other related references to Jesus being sent from God (John 4:34; 5:23-24, 30, 33, 36-38; 6:29, 38-39, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28-29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9:4; 10:36; 11:42; 12:49; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5; 17:8, 18, 21, 23, 25). 17:18 and 20:21b are likewise similar in form and meaning to each other; both reflecting the intimate relationship and union between the Father, Jesus, and disciples. One might indicate this by the following pair of diagrams:

The Father sends

The Son (Christ)

Into the World

Chooses/calls disciples

To the Father

Christ shows/leads way

Out of the World

Chooses/calls disciples

The Father sends

The Son (Christ)

Into the World

Christ sends

His disciples

Into the World

For the verb a)poste/llw (from which is derived a)po/stolo$, apostle) one would  render literally “to set/place (someone away) from”, often with the sense of sending someone out to a different position (for a specific purpose)—i.e. to commission a soldier or emissary—and sometimes with the idea of consecration (setting apart). Pe/mpw in its primary sense can be translated more simply “send” (cause one to go [forth]). In these sayings of Jesus, a)poste/llw is typically used in the past (or perfect) tense, pe/mpw more commonly in the present/future; but otherwise with little apparent difference in meaning. The two verbs are combined in 20:21: “As the Father has sent (a)pe/stalke/n, perfect) me, so I send (or I am sending) (pe/mpw, present) you.”

b. Jesus’ breathing in the Spirit to the disciples, and the saying (v. 22-23)

We now come to the account of the “sending of the Spirit” proper. Let us examine the verse by word and phrase:

kai\ tou=to ei@pwn (“and having said this”)—connecting this narrative piece with the previous saying. One may regard this as either simple historical narration or as an editorial phrase joining separate bits of tradition.

e)nefu/shsen (“he blew in”)—often translated “he breathed on (them)”, but the literal rendering of the prefix e)n (“in”) is preferable. In English, “breathe in” would be misleading, for Jesus’ is not inhaling, but rather blowing in(to) the disciples. Most likely there is here an echo of the Creation account (Gen. 2:7): “and (God) blew (jpn) in his nostrils the breath (hmvn) of life.” In the LXX the Hebrew is rendered kai\ e)nefu/shsen ei)$ to\ pro/swpon au)tou= pnoh\n zwh=$ (“and He blew in into his face the breath of life”)—the same verb used here.

kai\ le/gei au)toi=$ (“and said/related to them”)—introducing an accompanying direct address of Jesus in the narrative; most likely this does not reflect a separate saying.

la/bete pneu=ma a%gion (“take/receive [the] holy Spirit”). As there is no definite article, this could be translated “receive a holy spirit”; however, there are other passages where pneu=ma is used without an article, and the (personal) Holy Spirit of God is meant (cf. Acts 2:4 for a similar instance). Pneu=ma really should be rendered literally as “breath” or “wind” (that is, “blowing”), except that in English these words are nearly always impersonal, while in Greek pneu=ma came to be used to describe personal ethereal/invisible beings and well as the ‘inner essence’ of a person. The Genesis account uses the word pnoh/, from the same derivation as pneu=ma, and with the similar meaning of “breath/wind”.

The attached saying in verse 23 is a bit more complicated:

“Of (those) whose sins you would release, they have been released to them; of (those) whose (sins) you would hold (firm), they have been held.”

Here there are several important details to note:

  1. The verbs used: a)fi/hmi here has been rendered literally “release”, conventionally translated in such contexts as “forgive”; krate/w means “use strength”, but can have the figurative sense of “exercise power, rule” or the concrete sense of “grasp, seize, hold firm”. The last rendering (“hold firm”) is probably best here, as it clearly indicates the opposite of “release”.
  2. The tense/mood used: the best reading for each verb is aorist subjunctive (active “you would/might…”) followed by perfect indicative (passive “they have been…”). However, in a number of manuscripts the second instance of a)fi/hmi is a present (a)fi/entai, “they are [being] released”) or future (a)feqh/setai “they will be released”) form rather than the perfect.
  3. The use of a&n + the subjunctive has much the force of a conditional clause (i.e., with e)an): “If you forgive/release…”; but the whole construction, with emphatic use of particle and pronoun, also yields a solemn declaration: “If/when you should forgive/release (for anyone)… then (indeed)…”
  4. The plural indefinite pronoun (tinwn) would seem to have a general open-ended application: “whosever sins you would release…”. On its face, it is not limited to a specific group or community.

What exactly is Jesus saying here? I think it is useful to compare v. 23 with a somewhat similar saying in Matthew 16:19 (and 18:18):

Matthew 16:19 (18:18 is nearly identical):

“The (thing) which you would bind upon the earth will have been bound in the heavens; and the (thing) which you would loose will have been loosed in the heavens”

The form is nearly identical with that in John, also using aorist subjunctive and perfect indicative for each verb. The relative pronoun (o%) is even more general, not being limited to sins. To “bind” and “loose” is very close in meaning to “hold” and “release”, so that something of the same sort of power or authority is being described in both passages (in Matthew and John). The reference to keys earlier in the Matt. 16:19, would seem to echo Isa. 22:22 (“key of the house of David”). Interestingly, the Sinaitic Syriac for the second half of John 20:23 reads “shut (the door) against” instead of “hold”, language similar again to Isa. 22:22.

Interpretations vary both as to the nature and extent of the “power” granted by Jesus (a sampling of some of the more common):

  • The power over sin (given to all disciples) simply refers to the power to proclaim the forgiveness offered in the Gospel.
  • The reference is to the sacramental authority either in the sense of admitting persons to baptism and/or the sacrament of penance. Here the power would be limited to church officials and leaders (i.e. the apostles)
  • To the priestly power of absolution (limited to the apostles, and by extension, to priests).
  • A unique power granted to (the apostles) in the early Christian community—as representatives of Christ, they possess the same authority to address sin as he did in his earthly ministry. As such, it would only marginally relate (if at all) to future Christians.
  • Authority granted to all believers (i.e. all the disciples) to address sin, both in the world and, in particular, the Christian community.

I believe that a sound interpretation yields a combination of the last two positions listed above. I would combine them as follows:

  1. The early disciples—Peter (Matt. 16:19), the Twelve, and all others addressed in John 20:23—in fact held a unique commission from Jesus, including a leading position of authority in the early churches. This authority involved power to address and handle sins.
  2. However, this same power is possessed by all believers, to judge from parallel Johannine passages (see especially 1 John 5:16-17) and elsewhere in the New Testament (see James 5:13-19). Mutual confession of sin and correction seems to be involved, at least within the community of believers, as well as prayer against sickness, etc. How this relates to addressing sin in the World is less clear—but consider in this context the power of prayer described in James 5:15ff.

Part of the difficulty here lies in the tendency to consider “sin” in its cosmic dimension, in terms of salvation history, particularly as presented in the famous Pauline passages in Romans (esp. chapters 3 & 5) and elsewhere. But there are other aspects of “sin” and evil—the ability of human beings, both in a positive sense, especially through prayer and proclamation of the Word of God, or in a negative sense, to “hold” or “release” sin, need not contradict the belief that ultimate “release” (forgiveness) and salvation come from God.

3. Concluding Comparison of John 20:19-23 and Acts

In conclusion, I shall return to the comparative question addressed above. Several points related to the list of solutions presented there:

  • A simple, straightforward chronological harmonization of the two passages is neither advisable nor entirely appropriate. There is no indication that John or Luke-Acts is familiar with each other’s account. The only point of possible contact would seem to be the shared narrative tradition at Luke 24:36, 40 and John 20:19-20, and even that is not absolutely certain on text-critical grounds. Futhermore, in the “appendix” (ch. 21) of John there is no mention of a subsequent sending of the Spirit (nor future Ascension); Luke-Acts makes no mention of the disciples having received the Spirit prior to Acts 2. As tempting as the desire to harmonize might be, one should exercise caution.
  • The great narratives of the four Gospels (and Acts) are more than collections and arrangements of historical tradition: they are powerful creative works. Their distinctions should not be limited to preserving different traditions. Luke, in the Gospel, and Acts have presented a story of the Spirit coming upon the disciples, using the language and description of Old Testament theophany (“power from on high”). John has crafted his own story, using the images and symbols from earlier in the Gospel (especially chs. 13-17) and centered on the motif of “sending”. Luke has chosen the tradition of the Spirit’s manifestation at Pentecost, John has enhanced the tradition of the resurrection appearance.
  • For those inclined to harmonize, I would suggest a different approach:
    In Luke 24:49 we read: “and [see!] I send (a)poste/llw) you the e)paggeli/a of my Father upon you; but you, sit in the city until the (moment) in which you should be set in power (from) out of the height.”a)poste/llw is in the present tense (“I send” or “I am sending” [forth]), but, in light of Acts 2 (and the end of the verse here), typically understood in a future sense (“I [am about to] send”). But what if one were to read the present literally in light of John 20:22: i.e., “See, (here now) I am sending you the Spirit [i.e., promise/announcement, e)paggeli/a] of [i.e. from] my Father…” at which point one can fill in (or at least reference) the breathing of the Spirit from John.
    An interpretative rendering to be sure, but is this not approximately when the account of John 21:22 would have taken place in the Lukan scene?

Finally, I might boldly suggest that our connection to the Spirit need not be understood in a particular moment or event of “sending”. Perhaps, indeed, no single narrative is sufficient to describe its wonder and mystery—does it come to us from out of heaven, or from the breath of Jesus’ own lips?—as fire, wind, water, breath, dove, and many other images: they are nearly as inexhaustible as God’s Word itself.


The Sending of the Spirit, Part 2 (Book of Acts)

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For introductory notes on the first chapter of Acts and other matters preliminary to the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2, see Part 1 of this article.

The main narrative of the sending of the Spirit during Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13) I divide as follows:

  1. Introductory statement (unity of the Disciples), verse 1.
  2. Manifestation of the Spirit, verses 2-4.
  3. Reaction of Jews in Jerusalem (united voice of the crowds), verses 5-13.

I will discuss each of these in turn.

1. Introductory statement (unity of the Disciples), Acts 2:1:

As I did for Acts 1:14 in Part 1, I break out the specific words of this short verse:

kai\ (“and”)
e)n tw=| sumplhrou=sqai (“in the being filled up” [su/n as intensive prefix, i.e. “filled completely”]—but here as a temporal clause = “when it was completely filled”)
th\n h(me/ran th=$ pentekosth=$ (“the Fiftieth day”)
h@san (“they [i.e. the Disciples] were”)
pa/nte$ (“all”—all of them, together)
o(mou= (“as one” or “at one”, i.e., together, the same; see the similar o(moqumado\n [“of one impulse”] in 1:14)
e)pi\ to\ au)to/ (“upon the [same] thing”—this phrase occurs repeatedly in the early chapters of Acts, though somewhat obscured by conventional translations; it is indicative of the unity of the believers)

Here is the verse in literal translation:

“And in the Fiftieth day’s being filled completely, they were all at one upon the (same) thing [or, place]”

And in a more conventional translation:

“And when the Fiftieth day had been fufilled, they were all together in the same place.”
[As C. C. Torrey and other scholars have noted, the Greek may reflect an Aramaic expression “when the Weeks had been fulfilled” (e.g., aY`u^Wbv* <l^v=m!b=W), which is more intelligible]

The “Fiftieth” day (usually transliterated as “Pentecost”), is the festival of Weeks (toub%v*) in Israelite and Jewish tradition (cf. Lev. 23:9-22; Deut. 16:9-12). Fifty days (seven weeks) are counted from the offering of the firstfruit sheaf of grain at the time of Passover. Traditionally, it was also the time associated with the Sinai theophany and giving of the Law (Ex. 19:1ff). In the Exodus narrative, the entire camp of Israel was gathered together beneath the mountain “to meet God” (Ex. 19:17). Here, the disciples, too are gathered together in the same place and will “meet God”. Elements of the Sinai theophany also have their parallel in the manifestation of the Spirit, as we shall see.

2. Manifestation of the Spirit, Acts 2:2-4:

Here the manifestation of the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of God) is recorded in dramatic fashion, in the language and imagery of Theophany. Since the manifestation of God at Sinai (occurring at Pentecost, by tradition) was mentioned above, it is worth looking at elements of that theophany:

  • Thunders (lit. “voices”) and lightnings (19:16)
  • A thick cloud
  • Fire went down upon the mountain; smoke (as of a furnace) went up from it (19:18), perhaps parallel to the cloud in v. 16.
  • The mountain “trembled” (or “quaked”); in v. 16 it is said the people trembled (same verb, drj)
  • The sound (lit. “voice”) of a horn (rp*ov, shofar) (19:19, also mentioned in v. 16), which sounded long and grew louder

Consider also the theophany to Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-12):

  • A great and strong wind (or “breath”, “spirit” j^Wr = pneu=ma) which swept through and tore at the mountain
  • An earthquake (“quaking”, “shaking” vu^r^)
  • Fire (va@)

all of which occur as God (hwhy) is “passing over” (or “passing by” rb@u), but God Himself is not in (b) the wind, quaking or fire. Then comes a quiet, thin voice.

Here is the manifestation of the Spirit as recorded in Acts (note the theophanic details in italics, with specific parallels in bold):

  1. “And suddenly there came to be out of the heaven a sound as of a violent wind [pnoh/] being carried (along) and it filled the whole house (in) which they were sitting” (2:2)
  2. “And there was seen [i.e. appeared] unto them tongues as if of fire divided through(out), and it sat upon each one of them” (2:3)
  3. “And they all were filled of/by (the) holy Spirit [pneu=ma] and began to speak in other tongues even as the Spirit gave (to) them to utter forth” (2:4)

Clearly, there is wordplay with “tongues (as if) of fire” [glw=ssai w(sei\ puro/$] anticipating “with other tongues” [e(te/rai$ glw/ssai$] in v. 4. There is at least one other occurrence of the phrase “tongues of fire” from roughly the same period in a Qumran text (represented by fragments of 1Q29 and 4Q376: these with 4Q375 and 1Q22 may all be part of the same work). 1Q29 fragment 1 can be restored on the basis of 4Q376 (ellipses indicate gaps [lacunae] in the text):

“…the stone, like… they will provide you with light and he will go out with it with tongues of fire [va twnwvlb]; the stone which is at its left side will shine to the eyes of all the assembly until the priest finishes speaking. And after it [the cloud?] has been removed… and you shall keep and do all that he tells you. And the prophet … … who speaks apostasy … … YHWH, God of …”

Another tiny fragment reads: “… the right stone when the priest leaves … … three tongues of fire … … And after he shall go up and remove his shoes ….” (translations taken from García Martínez & Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, Brill/Eerdmans 1997/2000, vol. 1 pp. 108-9). The words (possibly spoken by Moses) refer to an anointed Priest; the stones on the right and left (urim and thummim?) are associated both with light and the voice of the Priest as he addresses the assembly. It is possible the “three tongues” are also “divided out”, one over each stone, and one directly over the Priest in the middle.

There is some uncertainty whether the “other tongues” refer to an ecstatic ‘heavenly’ language or ‘earthly’ foreign languages. Other New Testament references (Acts 10:46; 19:6, and those in 1 Cor. 12-14) suggest the former, while the context here (cf. Acts 2:11) indicates the latter. Perhaps the ambiguity is intentional, in order to reflect both: (a) heavenly origin, and (b) the languages of the nations. Returning to the Sinai theophany, there is an old Jewish tradition that as the Torah (each word of God) went forth it was split into the seventy languages of the nations (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 88b); that is, each nation could hear the voice of God (the “thunderings”) in its own language (cf. Exodus Rabbah V.9). A tradition along these lines seems to be at least as old as Philo of Alexandria (On the Decalogue §46), and so nearly contemporary with the book of Acts.

3. Reaction of Jews in Jerusalem (united voice of the Crowd), Acts 2:5-13:

The following outline indicates the main elements of this section:

  • Jews “come together” in Jerusalem (v. 5, 6a)
  • Response of the crowd (vv. 6b-11) in two aspects:
    1) Each person hears in his/her own language
    2) Nations respond in a (symbolic) united voice
  • Confusion (v. 12, see also in vv. 6-7)—”What does this wish to be?”

The mocking retort in v. 13 serves as a lead-in to Peter’s address in vv. 14-40. Let us look at each element in a little more detail:

a. Jews “come together” in Jerusalem (v. 5, 6a)

The mention of “Jews” ( )Ioudai=oi) being in Jerusalem may seem unnecessary, but it is significant for at least two reasons: (1) to emphasize the underlying religious and cultural unity of the ‘nations’ present in the city, and (2) it draws attention to the (post-exilic) reality of the current situation. When Israel, and particularly the southern kingdom of Judah (centered at Jerusalem), was taken into exile, the people were dispersed among the nations; and it was in the “dispersion” (diaspora) that a distinctly Jewish identity developed. It is generally assumed that these Jews are sojourning in Jerusalem for the festival of Weeks (Pentecost); the verb katoike/w often implies a more permanent residence, but here may simply mean generally “to dwell”. These Jews are “from every nation under heaven”, and have come together in the city (for the festival). At the coming-to-be of “this voice” (th/ fwnh/), again Jews, symbolized as a specific crowd (plh=qo$), “come together” (sune/rxomai) in confusion (being “stirred together” [sugxe/w]). It is interesting that, just in the tradition regarding the Sinai theophany, the multitudes are hearing different languages but one voice.

b. Response of the Crowd (v. 6b-11)

V. 6b and 7a reprise the confusion—they “stood out of (their minds)” and “wondered” in amazement as they heard the disciples speaking. It is unnecessary to ask just how, when, or where these people heard the disciples—and altogether beside the point. The author has crafted a marvelous dramatic scene, with events (at the historical level) certainly having been compressed together into a single moment. Similarly, it is rather unlikely that a single person or group of persons in the crowd would have said precisely what the crowd is recorded as saying here. Instead, various reactions and responses are represented by one voice. This is important thematically, and, one might say, theologically as well. Often a creative literary device conveys far more truth than a ‘sober’ record of events. Consider several of the themes inherent in the crowd’s response:

  • The reference to the disciples as “Galileans” (Galilai=oi), while serving to emphasize the wonder of the situation, also creates a subtle shift stressing ethnic (and geographic) identity. Most of the disciples, and certainly the Twelve were Galileans (“men of Galilee”, 1:11). The early Christian mission began in Galilee (cf. 1:1-2), is centered in Jerusalem (by the united community of the Disciples), and will spread from there into all nations (1:8).
  • Two key references to hearing the voices speaking “in our own language” (th=| i)di/a| dialek/tw| h(mw=n, v. 8, cf. also v. 6) and “in our tongues” (tai=$ h(mete/rai$ glw/ssai$, v. 11) bracket the list of nations in vv. 9-11a. The importance of this description should by now be apparent. It may be useful to consider the qualifying phrase accompanying each reference:
    (1) V. 8: “in our own language in which we came to be born” [e)n h! e)gennh/qhmen] (2) V. 11: “(hear speaking) in our tongues the great (work)s of God” [ta\ megalei=a tou= qeou=] The first phrase clearly indicates ethnic sense; the second echoes Old Testament language whereby news of the great and glorious deeds of God is spread into the surrounding nations (cf. Ex. 15:11ff, and many others)—geographic sense.
  • The list of nations (vv. 9-11) has been a source of some confusion, as indicated by the number of textual variants and proposed emendations. However, much of the difficulty disappears when its literary nature is recognized, rather than simply being a list rattled off by someone in the crowd. The inclusion of “Judea” has seemed strange (since Jews are speaking, and they are already in Judea!) as well as its position, leading to many suggested emendations; however, as a separate geographical list it actually makes sense—moving from East (Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamia) to West (Anatolian/Asian provinces, Egypt, Lybia, Cyrene and Italy) with Judea in the middle. While still a bit uneven (the final two, Cretans and Arabs, don’t fit in order as well) and not without difficulties, its significance as a list of the (known and relevant) surrounding nations is obvious.

c. Confusion (v. 12, cf. also vv. 6-7)

The confusion of the crowd is re-iterated, stating that they all were beside themselves (again e)ci/sthmi, lit. “stand out of [one’s mind]” v. 7) and “thoroughly at a loss” (diapore/w). Their summary response is: ti/ qe/lei tou=to ei@nai; (literally “what does this wish to be?”), often translated more conventionally as “what does this mean?”—however a more literal rendering preserves better a sense of the strange, dynamic nature of the situation in which the crowd finds itself: events almost seem to have a will of their own! The ironic, mocking retort that closes the crowd’s response (“they are filled with sweet [wine]!”), of course, serves to lead into Peter’s great Pentecost speech (vv. 14-40). The disciples are indeed “filled” (plh/qw) with the Spirit (v. 4), rather than “filled” (mesto/w, a somewhat cruder verb which can indicate “stuffed”, “intoxicated”) with ordinary wine.

In conclusion, it is perhaps worth considering again the theme of the “restoration of Israel” in light of the Pentecost narrative:

  • The disciples have returned (turned back) to Jerusalem
    • The Twelve have been reconstituted and are gathered together (in Jerusalem) in one place
      • Jews from all nations (the Dispersion) also are gathered together in Jerusalem
    • They again hear the voice (word of God) in the languages of the nations, spoken by the Twelve and other disciples (echo of the Sinai theophany)
  • The disciples go out from Jerusalem into the nations (even to the Gentiles)

The Sending of the Spirit, Part 1 (Book of Acts)

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(Originally planned for use during Pentecost season)

There are two accounts of the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Disciples—in the Gospel of John (20:19-23) and Luke-Acts (Acts 2:1-4ff). Commentators continue to debate the relationship between these two passages, whether to harmonize them (the traditional-conservative view) or to regard them as separate traditions (the critical view). I will address these issues briefly in Part 3 when discussing the account in John. Here I will be looking at the (Pentecost) narrative in Acts.

It should be pointed out that the Holy Spirit has a special emphasis in Luke-Acts. One can see this already in the early chapters:

a. The Infancy Narrative(s): Luke 1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25-27
b. The Baptism of Jesus: Luke 3:21-22. Compare the description in v. 22 with the parallel accounts in Matthew and Mark (key difference in italics):

Mark 1:10

…kai\ eu)qu\$ a)nabai/nwn e)k tou= u%dato$ ei@den sxizo/meno$ tou\$ ou)ranou\$ kai\ to pneu=ma w($ peristera\n katabai=non ei)$ au)to\n
“…and right away stepping up out of the water, he saw the heavens being split (open) and the Spirit as a dove stepping down into him”

Matthew 3:16

…eu)qu\$ a)ne/bh a)po\ tou= u%dato$: kai\ i)dou\ h)new/|xqhsan [au)tw=|] oi( ou)ranoi kai\ ei@den [to\] pneu=ma [tou=] qeou= katabai=non w(sei peristera\n [kai\] e)rxo/menon e)p’ au)to\n
“…right away he stepped up from the water, and see—the heavens opened for him and he saw [the] Spirit of God stepping down as if a dove [and] coming upon him”

Luke 3:21b-22 (the passage cannot properly be translated without including all of vv. 21-22, the sequence e)ge/nto + infinitives and acc. being difficult to render into English):

e)ge/neto de\ e)n tw=| baptisqh=nai a%panta to\n lao\n kai\  )Ihsou= baptisqe/nto$ kai\ proseuxome/nou a)new|xqh=nai to\n ou)rano\n kai\ katabh=nai to\ pneu=ma to\ a%gion swmatikw=| ei&dei w($ peristera\n e)p’ au)to\n, kai\ fwnw\n e)c ou)ranou= gene/sqai: su\ ei@ o( ui(o\$ mou…
“And it came to be, in the dipping of all the people—and Jesus (also) being dipped and praying—the opening (passive) of heaven and stepping down (active) of the Holy Spirit in a bodily sight [i.e. shape/form] as a dove upon him and a voice out of heaven coming to be: ‘You are my Son…'”

The accounts in Mark and Matthew could be understood as a private vision to Jesus; Luke’s language, on the other hand, seems to imply a tangible manifestation visible to everyone.

c. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry (before and after the Temptation): Luke 4:1, 14, 18. Note especially: Mark 1:12 says that the Spirit “cast/drove out” (e)kba/lei) Jesus into the desert, Matthew 4:1 that Jesus was “brought up by [lit. under]” (a)nh/xqh…u(po\) the Spirit; while Luke 4:1 states that Jesus was “led in”  (h&geto e)n) the Spirit, being “full of the Holy Spirit” (plh/rh$ pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou).

In addition, Luke on numerous occasions speaks of the Holy Spirit “coming upon” individuals (1:35; 2:25; 4:18), as well as persons being “filled with” the Spirit (1:15, 41, 61; 4:1) or “in the Spirit” (2:27; 4:1; 10:21), language which is really not found in the other Gospels, and which will reoccur frequently in the book of Acts. Also, while there are a few instances of the promise of the Spirit to believers in the wider Synoptic tradition (Mark 1:8; 13:11 and par.), only Luke speaks of the “sending” of the Spirit (24:49, “the promise of my Father”), which foreshadows the narrative in Acts (cf. Acts 1:8). There are similar parallels in John (14:17, 26; 15:26; 16:13, etc), which, of course, also has an account of the sending of the Spirit (20:19-23).

Turning to the Pentecost narrative in Acts, it is most useful to keep in mind the context and structure of the early chapters, which I outline as follows:

  1. Lukan Introduction (1:1-5)—a long, complex and difficult sentence (cf. Luke 1:1-4), which turns into an historical summary (vv. 2-4a) and concludes with a direct address of Jesus to his disciples (vv. 4b-5).
  2. The Ascension (1:6-11), comprising:
    (a) the question regarding the Kingdom and Jesus’ reply to his disciples(vv. 6-8),
    (b) the visible ascension with theophanic/apocalyptic imagery (v. 9),
    (c) appearance of the (Heavenly) men and their address to the disciples
  3. A summary narrative (1:12-14) recording the return of the disciples to Jerusalem, and their united presence in the Upper Room (the Twelve [minus Judas Iscariot], some women, Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers). This summary parallels Luke 24:52-53, and is an important bridge between the Ascension and the following narrative.
  4. The Reconstitution of the Twelve (1:15-26)—two key parts, both of which act as seminal motifs for the remainder of the book:
    a) Peter’s speech (vv. 15-22)—the first of many such speeches in Acts, centering on quotation/interpretation of Scripture (a tradition regarding Judas Iscariot has been inserted parenthetically, vv. 18-19)
    b) The selection/commission of a disciple (Matthias) for (apostolic) ministry (vv. 23-26)
  5. The Pentecost Narrative (chapter 2)
    5a. Narrative of the coming of the Spirit (2:1-13: a detailed outline will be given in Part 2)
    5b. Peter’s Speech (2:14-40), again centered on quotation/interpretation of Scripture.
    5c. Historical/editorial summary (2:41-47).

This same structure will be carried out through much of Acts; for example, in the next two chapters:

  • Main historical narrative, including notable ministry work, miracles, etc. (“Acts”) of the Apostles (3:1-11; 4:1-22)
  • Speech (or intercourse), centered on a passage (or passages) of Scripture, and containing early Gospel proclamation (kerygma) (3:12-26; 4:23-30)
  • Historical/editorial summary (none in ch. 3; 4:31)

Each of sections 1-4 (which make up Acts 1) is important thematically for an understanding of the Pentecost Narrative. Here I summarize some key notes:

Section 1: Lukan Introduction (Acts 1:1-5):

  • The historical summary (vv. 2-4a) has, at its heart the double phrase:
    oi!$ kai\ pare/sthsen e(auto\n zw=nta meta\ to\ paqei=n au)to\n e)n polloi=$ tekmhri/oi$,
    di’ h(merw=n tessera/konta o)ptano/meno$ au)toi=$ kai\ le/gwn ta\ peri\ th=$ basilei/a$ tou= qeou=
    “…and to whom [i.e. the disciples] he stood himself alongside [i.e. presented himself] alive after his suffering in many fixed marks [i.e. signs/proofs],
    through forty days being seen by them and recounting/relating the (things) about the kingdom of God”
    We can break down chiastically the elements of this phrase:

Living presence of God/Christ in his disciples
[to whom he stood himself alongside alive…]
—   Demonstration that He is the Messiah and Son of the Living God
[…after his suffering in many fixed marks/signs]
—   Ministry and proclamation
[through days being seen by them and recounting/relating…]
The Kingdom of God
[…the things about the Kingdom of God]

These are all seminal themes and motifs of the Book of Acts, and, one might say, form the core of the Gospel message.

  • The narration continues in v. 4a and blends into an address (in direct speech) of Jesus to his disciples. Again note the key elements:

a. Stay in (do not depart from) Jerusalem (see Luke 24:52; Acts 1:12)
b. Remain about (i.e. wait) for the promise of the Father (Luke 24:49)
which you have heard from me (see Acts 1:13-14, also Luke 24:53)
c. Reprise of John’s testimony:
“(On the one hand), John dipped/dunked in/with water,
but (on the other hand), you will be dipped/dunked in the Holy Spirit
after not many (of) these days”

Section 2: The Ascension (Acts 1:6-11):

Note again how one can break this passage down chiastically:

  • Question regarding the Kingdom of God with Jesus’ reply, including a reiteration of the promise of the Holy Spirit (vv. 6-8)
    • The Ascension of Jesus (v. 9)
      —At their seeing/looking
      —      He was raised up(on)
      —      A cloud took him under
      —Away from their eyes
  • Angelic appearance and eschatological announcement about Christ’s return (vv. 10-11)

The theme of the Kingdom—shorthand for “Kingdom of God (or Heaven)”—is most significant; I will be discussing it later this week in more detail. One can, I think, outline four principal ways of understanding the phrase:

  1. As the Eternal rule of God (in Heaven)
  2. As an eschatological (Messianic) Kingdom, on earth, the establishment of which will involve: (a) judgment/defeat of the nations and enemies of God, and (b) restoration of the Davidic inheritance to Israel.
  3. In the person and work of Jesus—the miracles, teaching, foundation of the church, atoning death and resurrection, etc.
  4. As the (spiritual) presence and power of God in the heart, mind, and lives of believers.

Other interpretations are possible, but they likely will end up being a variation on one of the above. These four meanings can be found in the New Testament—even, I think, in Jesus’ own teaching on the Kingdom—but probably #1 and 4 are most common. The thorniest question scholars raise is to what extent #2 is part of Jesus’ teaching. It is likely that his proclamation “the Kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15 par.) would have been understood in this manner—of eschatological/Messianic expectation—by his contemporaries; and this certainly seems to be what the disciples have in mind here at Acts 1:6.

Let us briefly examine the disciples’ question:

ku/rie, ei) e)n tw=| xronw=| tou/tw| a)pokaqista/nei$ th\n basilei/an tw=|  )Israh/l;
“Lord, (if) in this time will you set down again the kingdom to Israel?”

A more literal rendering of a)pokaqisth/nai would indicate setting the Kingdom down from (a)po/) where it is currently, back to its former condition; conventionally, we could translate “reconstitute” or “restore”.

Jesus’ reply comes in two parts: first—

“It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has set in (his) own e)cousi/a

e)cousi/a (from e&cestin), almost impossible to translate literally, has the sense of “ability” or “authority” to do something. Jesus effectively dispenses with their question, without necessarily denying its validity—however, the brusque response may suggest a misunderstanding on their part. Earlier it is stated that Jesus, during the days following his resurrection, related to his disciples “the things concerning the Kingdom of God” (v. 3). Almost certainly this involved more than the sort of eschatological Messianic kingdom (meaning #2 above) common in popular religious thought. Yet this is what they ask about here. If the first part of Jesus’ reply does away with their question, the second part, in some sense re-establishes it:

“But you shall receive (the) power of the holy Spirit (which is) coming upon you, and you shall be my witnesses (both) in Jerusalem, and [in] all Judea and Samaria, and unto the end of the earth.”

Indeed, I would maintain that the idea of the “restoration of the kingdom”, or, one may say, the “restoration of Israel” is an important idea both in Jesus’ teaching and in the book of Acts.

Section 3: Summary narrative (1:12-14):

I have already mentioned a couple of themes found in this short passage; but, to reiterate, in light of the above comments:

  • The disciples “return (or turn back) into Jerusalem”, v. 12. On the surface this is a simple description; however, consider the language in light of the implied motif of the “restoration” of Israel:
    a) The dispersed Israelites will return to the land, and to Jerusalem
    b) The restoration of Israel is often tied to repentance (turning back)
  • The Twelve disciples are gathered together in one place (upper room), v. 13. If the Twelve represent Israel (see below), then here we also have an image of the twelve tribes gathered together again.
  • The initial words of v. 14 contain a number of related, seminal motifs:
    ou!toi (“these”—the twelve, along with the other disciples)
    pa/nte$ (“all”—that is, all of them, together)
    h@san proskarterou=nte$ (“were being strong” [sense of “endurance”, “patience”] “toward” their purpose/goal)
    o(moqumado\n (“with one impulse”—a key phrase that occurs throughout Acts, cf. 2:46; 4:24, et al. qumo/$ is often translated as “soul”, “mind” [“with one mind”], but also as “passion”, “desire”; the primal sense of the word was something like a “[violent] stirring”)
    th=| proseuxh=| (“in prayer”)

Does this not seem a beautiful, concise image of what one might call the “kingdom of God” on earth?

Section 4: The Reconstitution of the Twelve (1:15-26):

Here it is important to emphasis again the theme of the Twelve. On purely objective grounds, the Twelve represent one of the earliest Christian traditions—a fixed tradition and symbol, separate, it would seem, from much of the actual historical detail. This appears clearly enough from passages such as 1 Cor. 15:5 and Matthew 19:28, where “the Twelve” are mentioned, even though only eleven disciples could be involved (Judas being dead or disqualified). Also, note the variant lists of the Twelve (Matt. 10:1-14; Mark 3:14-19; and Luke 6:13-16 / Acts 1:13). Most likely the Twelve were chosen (by Jesus) in part to represent the tribes of Israel. This is not stated directly, but note Matthew 19:28 (and the Lukan parallel 22:30) and the sending out of the Twelve in Matthew 10:5f. It is possible too, at least in early Christian tradition, that the twelve baskets in the miraculous feeding came to be thought of as symbolic of Israel re-gathered, as well as an image of Church unity (see Didache 9:4 on the Eucharist). In the book of Revelation 21:12-14, the twelve apostles are also identified in terms of the twelve tribes.

So here, in Acts, the choosing of a twelfth apostle, to take the place of Judas Iscariot, takes on great significance. According to the logic of the narrative, Israel (the Twelve tribes) cannot be restored until the Twelve are reconstituted. This may seem strange to modern thinking, but the symbolism was powerful indeed to early Christians, for whom Israel and “the Church” were closely connected.

This sets the stage for the Pentecost narrative (Acts 2:1-14ff) which I will discuss in Part 2.


Where Did Jesus Go? — Critical Notes on the Ascension, Part 3

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In the first two parts of this article, I discussed the main passages dealing with the Ascension of Jesus in Luke-Acts (Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:1-11). Here I will briefly explore several additional New Testament passages, followed by a treatment of some key critical questions related to the Ascension.

Mark 16:19

This is the most straightforward account of the Ascension, presented in traditional, credal terms:

o( me\n ou@n ku/rio$  )Ihsou=$ meta\ to\ lalh=sai au)toi=$ a)nelh/mfqh ei)$ to\n ou)rano\n kai\ e)ka/qisen e)k deciw=n tou= qeou=
“therefore the Lord Jesus, after speaking to them, was taken up into the heaven and sat out of the ‘right-hand’ of God”

decio/$ is literally the hand/side “that takes” (or gives), the favored or auspicious side. The “right hand” (/ym!y`) of God occurs frequently in the Old Testament (Exodus 15:6, 12; Psalm 16:11; 17:7, etc; Isaiah 41:10; 48:13; 62:8; and others), usually as a symbol of God’s faithfulness and power. It is also the most common image of Jesus’ exaltation in the New Testament (Matthew 22:44; 26:64; Mark 12:36; 14:62; Luke 20:42; 22:69; Acts 2:25, 33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22)—all of these passages seem to have been influenced by Psalm 110:1 (many are direct citations). Even though this account in Mark is probably not original to the Gospel (part of the so-called “long ending”, 16:9-20), it no doubt here preserves an ancient tradition.

There is another reference to the ascension/exaltation of Jesus, in an unusual variant, earlier in the chapter. In verse 4, the Old Latin MS k begins: “but suddenly at the third hour of the day there was darkness over the whole circle of the earth, and angels descended from the heavens, and as he [the Lord] was rising [surgente eo] in the glory of the living God, at the same time they ascended with him; and immediately it was light. Then the women went to the tomb…” (translation from Meztger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition, pp. 101-102). This represents a description of the actual resurrection of Jesus, similar to that found in the Gospel of Peter §35-40. However, it also reflects the principal manner in which the “Ascension” was understood in the early Church—that is, as an extension of the resurrection (on this, see below).

John 20:17

The only specific reference in John to anything like the traditional “Ascension” in Luke-Acts, occurs during the first resurrection appearance (to Mary Magdalene). Here Jesus says to her: mh/ mou a%ptou, ou&pw ga\r a)nabe/bhka pro\$ to\n pate/ra, “do not touch me, for I have not yet stepped up toward the Father”; and, following the instruction to go to the other disciples (“my brothers”), tells her to say to them, a)nabai/nw pro\$ to\n pate/ra mou kai\ pate/ra u(mw=n kai\ qeo/n mou kai\ qeo\n u(mw=n (“I step up toward my Father and your [pl.] Father, and [toward] my God and your [pl.] God”). The chronology of this statement is difficult, for it does not seem to fit with the wider record of resurrection appearances in the Gospel tradition, nor with the ‘older’ view of an ascension as an immediate climax of the resurrection/exaltation. It is complicated even further by John’s highly symbolic use (primarily as presented in the Discourses of Jesus) of going/lifting up. For other similar uses of a)nabai/nw: John 3:13; 6:62; 1:51 (also the references of “going up” to the feast may involve an intentional wordplay); for u(yo/w (“lift high”) see John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34. Throughout the last discourses (John 13-17), Jesus also makes numerous references to going/returning to the Father (John 13:3, 33; 14:2, 4, 13, 28; 16:5, 7, 10, 17, 28). Since these are generally made in context of the coming/sending of the paraclete (lit. “one called alongside”, identified with the Holy Spirit [14:26]), it is almost certainly Jesus’ ‘final’ departure that is in view; however, other references to his return (14:18-20; 16:16-23) seem to fit better an immediate post-resurrection appearance.

I have discussed some of the symbolic and theological nuances of the appearance to Mary in a previous post. With regard to the authentic tradition that underlies this narrative, it is perhaps best to distinguish clearly between: (a) Jesus’ exaltation to the right-hand of the Father (as part of the resurrection), and (b) his final (earthly) departure from the disciples. Since “ascension” language can be used to describe both of these, one must be careful not to confuse them (on this, see in more detail below).

Ephesians 4:8-10

Here Paul (or the author of the epistle) cites Psalm 68:18a [MT 19a], which, early on in Christian tradition, seems to have been understood as referring to the ascension and exaltation of Christ. It quickly became embedded as part of the liturgy celebrating the ascension. However, as is often the case with scriptural citations in the New Testament, both the original text and context have been altered:

Hebrew (MT)

<d*a*B* tonT*m^ T*j=q^l* yb!V# t*yb!v* <orM*l^ t*yl!u*

“You have gone up to the heights, you have led captive captivity, you have taken gifts by man”

LXX (67:19a)

a)ne/bh$ ei)$ u%yo$ h)|xmalw/teusa$ ai)xmalwsi/an e&labe$ do/mata e)n a)nqrw/pw|

“You have stepped up into (the) height, you have led captive captivity, you have taken/received gifts among man”


Ephesians 4:8

a)naba\$ ei)$ u%yo$ h)|xmalw/eusen ai)xmalwsi/an e&dwken do/mata toi=$ a)nqrw/poi$

“Stepping up into (the) height, he led captive captivity, he gave gifts to men”

The LXX is a faithful rendering of the Hebrew. However, the citation in Ephesians differs markedly:

  • The first verb (a)naba\$) is a participle, which is not all that significant; this also occurs as a variant (MS B) in the LXX
  • The verbs have all been changed from 2nd person to 3rd person, which is a natural adaptation to the context in Ephesians (from a hymn addressing God, to a description of the work of Christ).
  • The collective “man” (<dah) has been changed to the plural “men”
  • The last verb has been changed from “take/receive” (jql, lamba/nw) to “give” (di/dwmi)

This last is most notable, for it entirely alters the sense of the passage. In the original Psalm, the justice and power of God are celebrated. Yahweh has gone out before His people, leading them in power and glory (vv. 7-18, also 21-23)—kings and armies flee before His might (v. 12, 14). He is depicted as going up into His mountain, leading captives from battle, and taking/receiving gifts (even from the rebellious [the ones who have “turned aside”], v. 18b). Verses 24-31 present the liturgical picture of peoples offering gifts to God. While all of this, of course, could fit the image of Christ being exalted to the right-hand of God, Ephesians has turned the image inside out: now God/Christ is the one offering gifts to believers.

*  *  *  *  *  *

It now remains to address several key questions related to the Ascension:

  1. Where did it occur?
  2. When did it occur?
  3. What is its exact nature?

1. Where Did the Ascension Occur?

This is part of a larger question related to the provenance of the resurrection appearances. If one takes all the Gospel narratives as they currently stand, it is actually quite difficult to harmonize them in detail, though of course many have attempted to do so. There are two fundamental differences in the accounts:

a) In one line of tradition, the Messenger tells the women at the tomb to relate to the disciples (and Peter) that “he leads (the way) before you into Galilee; there you will see him, even as he said to you” (Mark 16:7, par. Matthew 28:7). The implication is that Jesus is going ahead to Galilee, and it is there that the disciples (including Peter) will (first) see him. This is confirmed even more clearly by Jesus in Matthew 28:10, declaring that the disciples “should go from (here) into Galilee”. There is no suggestion that they should remain in Jerusalem; in fact, that could be said to contradict Jesus’ command. In Matthew, the subsequent appearance in Galilee (vv. 16-17), however brief, gives every indication that this is the first appearance to the disciples (note their “wavering” in v. 17, indications of doubt common to the other appearances in Luke and John).

By all accounts, the original ending of Mark has been lost (this is not certain, but I think it remains the best explanation); the so-called “long ending” (16:9-20), though added relatively early (it is known by the mid-2nd century), seems very much to be a secondary (scribal?) addition. While doubtless containing ancient/authentic traditions, I think it possible that an attempt has also been made to harmonize with the account in Luke. In any event, the resurrection appearance (and ascension, v. 19) seems to take place in Jerusalem (though this is not specified), which would be ‘contrary’ to the message in v. 7.

b) The second line of tradition (preserved in Luke 24 and John 20) clearly has the resurrection appearances occurring in and around Jerusalem. In the Lukan account, Jesus actually commands the disciples to remain (kaqi/sate, “sit” or “dwell”) in the city (presumably Jerusalem) “until the (moment) in which you should be set in power out of (the) height” (24:49). The implication is that they should stay in Jerusalem for the approx. fifty days until Pentecost (when the Spirit comes upon them). There is no mention of going to Galilee; in fact, similar to the (opposite) situation in Matthew-Mark, that would contradict Jesus’ explicit command. It is interesting that, if Luke has made use of Mark (as scholars commonly believe), then he has quite altered the angelic announcement: in Luke 24:6 the two messengers still mention Galilee (cf. Mark 16:7), but in a very different context.

In John, too they are apparently in Jerusalem when Jesus appears and they receive the Spirit from him (20:19-23); similarly the appearance to Thomas eight days later (vv. 26-29) would presumably still be in Jerusalem. John 21 complicates the picture: for there (in verses 1-14 at least) we have a resurrection appearance in Galilee. However, since this chapter follows what seems to be the conclusion to the Gospel (20:30-31), many scholars would view it as a kind of “appendix”, possibly composed/included by a different author (though this is much disputed). Its exact origins and relation to the events recorded in chapter 20 are also uncertain, with a wide range of opinions on all sides.

Of course, according to Acts 1:1-11 and Luke 24:50-53 (assuming the longer reading), the Ascension of Jesus—that is, his final departure from the disciples—clearly takes place on the Mount of Olives, about 2000 cubits (or just over 1000 yards) east of Jerusalem (Acts 1:12). If the reference in Luke 24:50 is meant to be specific, then the Ascension might have occurred on the eastern slope somewhere near Bethany.

2. When Did the Ascension Occur?

This question, in relation to the seemingly divergent chronologies in Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:1-11, has been dealt with to some extent in the first two parts of this article. The basic question is, did it take place on Easter day as is (apparently) indicated in Luke 24 and the Markan “long ending”, or did it take place between 40 and  50 days later as narrated in Acts? My view is that the “separate” accounts in Luke-Acts probably describe the same event, but that in the Gospel the narrative has been greatly compressed, so that events which may have occurred days apart seem to take place on the same day. The same could perhaps be said of the Markan “long ending”, especially since everything seems to wrap up quickly in the last two verses.

However, a proper answer to the question also must address exactly what one means by the “Ascension”.

3. What Is the Nature of the Ascension?

As indicated above, there seem to be two separate traditions at work:

a) The first describes the “Ascension” in terms of Jesus’ resurrection—his being raised and glorified to the “right hand” of the Father.

b) The second relates it in terms of Jesus’ final (earthly) departure from his disciples.

One must be careful, I think, not to confuse or conflate the two traditions—for, both doctrinally, and even historically, they can be said to have quite different meanings. However, if one wishes to systematize or harmonize the scriptural details, it could possibly be done as follows:

  • Jesus’ being raised from the dead (evidence of the empty tomb and the angelic announcement[s])
  • His ascension to the Father is part of the resurrection/exaltation, which climaxes with his presence at the right hand of God (where also he receives the Spirit to give to his disciples)
  • From a temporal point of view, Jesus’ appearance to the women (cf. Matthew 28:9-10; [Mark 16:9]; John 20:11-18) could perhaps be seen as taking place prior to this ascent to the Father (John 20:17-18)—but this is not entirely clear.
  • Resurrection appearances of the glorified Christ, during which he instructed and commissioned the disciples (in John [20:22] he gives them the Spirit as well)
  • His final departure, recorded only in Luke-Acts, described as a visible Ascension
  • Mark 16:19 may represent a conflation of the two traditions (in a credal formula?), indicated above

Where Did Jesus Go? — Critical Notes on the Ascension, Part 2

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In the first part of this article, I discussed the critical passage which closes the Gospel of Luke (Luke 24:50-53), comparing the “longer” reading (Majority text) which narrates the Ascension, with the “shorter” reading (Western text, but significantly also a*) which omits reference to his being “carried up into heaven”. Assuming for the moment that the longer reading is original, it does seem to conflict with the situation in Acts: for Luke 24:50-53 suggests that the Ascension took place late on Easter day, while Acts 1:2-11 records it occurring at least 40 days after the Resurrection. By scholarly consent, the same author (traditionally Luke, physician and companion of Paul) wrote both the Gospel and Acts—why would he create such an apparent discrepancy? A number of solutions have been offered to explain this:

  1. The Gospel and Acts record different events—an ‘intermediate’ ascension followed by a final departure into heaven 40 days later. I would regard this has highly unlikely. There is nothing to suggest that the ascension in Luke 24:51-52 is any other than Jesus’ ‘final’ departure from his disciples. A better solution in this regard would be to adopt the shorter reading—then separate events (but not separate ascensions) could be involved.
  2. After composing the Gospel, the author discovered the “correct” chronology (Ascension after 40 days), which he recorded in Acts, without altering the Gospel narrative.
  3. The author of Luke-Acts records separate traditions, without necessarily attempting to harmonize them. Admittedly, ancient (and/or traditional) authors may have been less bothered by apparent inconsistencies than modern readers and commentators; however, it is hard to gloss over such a glaring difference, in such relatively close proximity, within the same 2-volume work. Luke’s statement in the prologue of the Gospel (1:1-4) shows he was conscious of the need to narrate the traditions “accurately” (a)kribw=$) and in order (a)nata/casqai, v. 1; kaqech=$, v. 3), though we should not read too much into this. Prior to Augustine’s Harmony of the Gospels (III.25.77ff), there seems to be little (if any) comment on the apparent discrepancy by early Christian writers.
  4. The same event is consciously set in two different chronological contexts, without necessarily a regard for establishing which one is historically “correct”. This is a variation of #3, though with greater emphasis on the creative freedom of the author in setting the inherited tradition. In other words, while early tradition clearly believed in the exaltation/ascension of Jesus into heaven, specific details on location, timing, etc. may have differed as the story was told.
  5. In the Gospel, Luke has compressed the narrative so that events which may have occurred days apart are recorded as taking place at the same time. In my view, this is by far the best explanation. Many examples could be cited of this phenomenon in biblical (and other ancient) literature. Narrative episodes and sayings of Jesus are often connected together in the Gospels for many different reasons; one should not always read it as a simple historical/chronological sequence without further ado.

Acts 1:1-11

This is the opening section (1:1-11) of the book of Acts; some would extend it to include verses 12-14, but I believe these are best treated as transitional to what follows (the first days of the Church). In order to see how the Ascension fits into the structure of this passage, I provide a detailed outline below. Verses 1-5 can, and I think should, be read as a single long sentence: beginning with an address to Theophilus, shifting into a rather awkward (and textually difficult) narrative summary, and ending with direct discourse of Jesus to his disciples. Already here we see signs of the textual problems related to the “Western” text of Acts, which is different enough to be regarded as a separate recension of the book. I will likely be discussing possible solutions and explanations for this peculiar textual situation in an upcoming post.

Outline of Acts 1:1-11

Opening sentence: Verses 1-5

A. Verse 1: (secondary) Address to Theophilus (cf. Luke 1:1-4), referencing the “first account” (prw=ton lo/gon), i.e., the Gospel, about all (peri\ pa/ntwn)

Content of the Gospel: “Jesus began to do (poiei=n) and also to teach (dida/skein)”

B. Chronological summary (verse 2):
a&xri h!$ h(mera/$ “until which day…”

e)nteila/meno$ toi=$ a)posto/loi$ “having commanded the apostles

dia\ pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou “through the holy Spirit

ou^$ e)cele/catowhom he had chosen [lit. gathered out]”

a)nelh/mfqh “…he was taken up”

C. Historical summary (verses 3-4)—backward glance, beginning with the resurrection:
To whom (the Apostles, referent in verse 2) he “stood himself beside” (pare/sthsen) them “living” (zw=nta)

meta/ to\ paqei=n au)to/n “after his suffering”

e)n polloi=$ tekmhri/oi$ “in many fixed marks [or sure signs]”

di’ h(merw=n tessera/konta “through/during forty days” [i.e. an important symbolic period]
Events of “forty days” (marked by participles):

being seen (o)ptano/meno$) by them” and
recounting [i.e. speaking of] (le/gwn) the (things) about the kingdom of God” and
staying together (suna[u]lizo/meno$) with (them) he passed along a message to them”

Content of the message (transition into direct discourse):

a)po\  (Ierosolu/mwn “From Jerusalem”

mh\ xwri/zesqai “not to separate themselves” [i.e. depart]
a)lla\ perime/nein “but to remain around (for)”

th\n e)paggeli/an tou= patro/$ “the announcement [lit. message upon (you)] of/from the Father
–     h^n h)kou/sate mou/ “which you have heard of/from me

D. Statement of Jesus (direct discourse) to his disciples (verse 5)—tying together, in a different way, the beginning and end of his ministry (theme of the section)

o%ti “For…” indication of the (past) citation referring to John the Baptist (prior to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry)

“(me\n – on the one hand) John dipped/baptized in water
“(de\ – on the other hand) you shall be dipped/baptized (by God) in the Holy Spirit

ou) meta\ polla\$ tau/ta$ h(me/ra$ “after these few [lit. not many] days” (in 10 days, following the end of his earthly ministry)

Question regarding the Kingdom, and Jesus’ concluding statement: Verses 6-8

A. Disciples’ question regarding the Kingdom of God: “Lord, in this time do you set back down [i.e. restore] the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6)

B. Jesus’ answer: “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has set in his own authority” (v. 7)

C. Jesus’ concluding statement (v. 8), in two parts:

1) “But you shall receive (lh/myesqe) power of the holy Spirit (which is) coming upon you”

2) “and you shall be (e&sesqe) for me witnesses”

e)n te  )Ierousalh\m “in Jerusalem” (particle te governs what follows: “both in Jerusalem and…”)
–    kai\ [e)n] pa/sh| th=|  )Ioudai/a| “and [in] all Judea”
–    kai\ Samarei/a| “and Samaria”
–    kai\ e(w\$ e)sxa/tou th=$ gh=$ “and unto the end(s) of the earth”

The Ascension of Jesus: Verses 9-11

A. The Ascension narrated (v. 9)—compare with Luke 24:51:

kai\ e)ge/neto e)n tw=| eu)logei=n au)to\n au)tou\$ die/sth a)p’ au)tw=n kai\ a)nafe/reto ei)s to\n ou)ranon
“And it came to be, in his blessing them, he stood apart [i.e. parted] from them and was carried up into the heaven”

Acts 1:9: kai\ tau=ta ei)pw\n blepo/ntwn au)tw=n e)ph/rqh kai\ nefe/lh u(pe/laben au)to/n a)po\ tw=n o)fqalmw=n au)tw=n
“And having said these (things), in their seeing, he was lifted upon (the air) and a cloud took him under, (away) from their eyes”

B. The Appearance and message of the Two Men (vv. 10-11)

(Discussed below)

There are three aspects of the Ascension narrative (vv. 9-11) which are especially noteworthy:

  1. Apocalyptic imagery (esp. in verse 9)
  2. Parallel to the Lukan Resurrection scene (v. 10-11a)
  3. Eschatological image (v. 11)

1. Apocalyptic imagery. This refers to images and symbols associated with so-called Apocalyptic literature (a)pokalu/ptw is literally to “take the cover [away] from”)—works which record purported visions and revelations regarding the heavenly realms and/or future events. Here the imagery is simple and concise:

a) “Seeing” (blepo/ntwn au)tw=n, “[at/in] their seeing”)

b) “he was lifted up(on)” (e)ph/rqh)

b´) “a cloud took him under” (nefe/lh u(pe/laben au)to\n)

a´) “Not-seeing” (a)po\ tw=n o)fqalmw=n au)tw=n, “[away] from their eyes”)

The cloud, especially, typically symbolizes a heavenly manifestation and/or the Divine presence (Exodus 13:21 etc; 24:15-18; 40:34 etc; Leviticus 16:2; 1 Kings 8:10-12; Psalm 18:9-12; 68:4; Isaiah 19:1; Ezekiel 1:4; 10:3-4; Daniel 7:13; Revelation 10:1, 7; 14:14-16, and so forth). Jesus applies the early apocalyptic imagery from Daniel 7 to the (eschatological) appearance of the Son of Man (generally understood as Jesus’ own return): Luke 21:27 (par. Mark 13:24-27; Matthew 24:29-31); Mark 14:62 (par. Matthew 26:64). In addition, Luke seems to draw on the theophany at Sinai (Exodus 19:9, 16, etc) in his record of the Transfiguration scene (Luke 9:34-35; par. Mark 9:7; Matthew 17:5).

2. Parallels with the Lukan Resurrection scene. It is worth comparing the Ascension scene in Acts 1:9-11 with the initial Easter message at the empty tomb in Luke 24:1-8f:

Acts 1:10-12

  • Disciples gazing (into empty space)
  • Appearance of two men in white clothes
  • “(For) what have you stood looking into the heaven?”
  • “This Jesus, the one taken up from you into the heaven…”
  • …”(he shall come [again] just as you saw him go)”
  • They returned from the Mount
  • The disciples were all together in the room above

Luke 24:4-9

  • Women wondering (at the empty tomb)
  • Appearance of two men in flashing clothing
  • “(For) what do you seek the living with the dead?”
  • “He is not here, but he has been raised…”
  • …”(just as Jesus spoke to you while living)”
  • They returned from the tomb…
  • …to where the disciples were

3. Eschatological message. The conclusion of the message of the two men (verse 11b) is eschatological: “thus he shall come by the turning which [i.e. in the same manner] you perceived him traveling into the heaven”. It is a proclamation and promise of Jesus’ future return. The phrase o^n tro/pon (“by which turning”) has the sense of “in the same way/manner”, but is somewhat vague in context. Traditionally, however, there are two specific details involved:

a) Just as Jesus was taken up under the (heavenly) cloud, so he will return with the cloud(s) of heaven (cf. Daniel 7:13; Luke 21:27; Mark 14:62 and par.). This is more than an ordinary meteorological phenomenon—the cloud principally represents the presence of God.

b) So Jesus will also return to the Mount of Olives. This is not certain; admittedly, the author nowhere emphasizes it, but I believe it likely represents a common tradition in the early Church. There are two Old Testament references to the Mount of Olives which helped shape early Gospel tradition:

i. David’s departure from Jerusalem (following Absalom’s revolt), 2 Samuel 15:30. There seem to be echoes of this in the Synoptic narrative of Jesus’ passion and arrest.

ii. The eschatological appearance of Yahweh (day of YHWH) in Zechariah 14. He will appear to battle the nations and restore Jerusalem (vv. 1-3); His feet will stand on the Mount of the Olives, and the mount will be split into a great valley (v. 4, 5). This is part of the concluding visions of Zechariah 9-14—these difficult and highly evocative chapters exerted a profound influence on early Christian thought.

If the first of these references depicts the humiliation and suffering of Christ, the second portrays his exaltation and coming as Divine King.

(To be concluded)


Where Did Jesus Go? — Critical Notes on the Ascension, Part 1

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This post is an extended “Note of the Day” following the celebration of the Ascension of Jesus, traditionally commemorated 40 days after Easter (cf. Acts 1:3ff). There are surprisingly few direct references to the “Ascension”, either in the New Testament or in early Christian literature. More commonly, reference is made to Christ’s exaltation (usually involving either the verb u(yo/w, “to raise high” or adjective u(yhlo/$, “high”; cf. Acts 2:33; 5:31; Philippians 2:9; Hebrews 1:3; 7:26, etc), or to his being in heaven at the “right (hand)” (decio/$, that is, the giving/receiving hand) of God (cf. Mark 14:62 par.; Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22).

Only in Luke-Acts is an ascension described as a distinct event, perceivable in space and time. However, since there are numerous difficult text-critical (and interpretative) issues related to these passages, these will need to be discussed in some detail.

Luke 24:50-53

Luke’s Gospel concludes with a scene (apparently still on Easter day) which, in the “oldest and best” manuscripts (Ë75 a B C* L 1 33 579 etc), reads as follows:

50  )Ech/gagen de\ au)tou\$ [e&cw] e%w$ pro\$ Bhqani/an kai\ e)pa/ra$ ta\$ xei=ra$ au)tou= eu)lo/ghsen au)tou/$. 51 kai\ e)ge/neto e)n tw=| eu)logei=n au)to\n au)tou\$ die/sth a)p’ au)tw=n kai\ a)nefe/reto ei)$ to\n ou)rano/n.
“And he brought/led them out[side] until toward Bethany, and lifting over (them) his hands he spoke well to them [i.e. blessed them]; and it came to be, in his speaking well to them [i.e. blessing them], he stood (apart) from them and was carried up into the heaven.”
52 Kai\ au)toi\ proskunh/sante$ au)to\n u(pe/streyan ei)$  )Ierousalh\m meta/ xara=$ mega/lh$ 53 kai\ h@san dia/ panto\$ e)n tw=| i(erw=| eu)logou=nte$ to\n qeo/n.
“And they, kissing toward him [i.e. worshiping him], turned back unto Jerusalem with great joy, and they were through all [i.e. continually] in the sacred place [i.e. temple] speaking well to [i.e. blessing] God.”

(The Majority text differs slightly, primarily in reading ei)$ Bhqani/an instead of pro\$ Bhqani/an in v. 50, and adding kai\ ai)nou=nte$ or ai)nou=nte$ kai\ [“blessing and praising God”] in v. 53.)

There are, however, two major variants (omissions) in the key Western MSS (D, Old Latin a b d e ff2 l, and the Sinaitic Syriac):

  1. Verse 51 reads: kai\ e)ge/neto e)n tw=| eu)logei=n au)to\n au)tou\$ die/sth a)p’ au)tw=n “and it came to be, in his blessing them, he stood (apart) from them” (without kai\ a)nefe/reto ei)$ to\n ou)rano/n “and he was carried up into the heaven”). In other words, it relates that Jesus simply “parted” from them, without any reference to an ascension into heaven.
  2. Verse 52 continues: kai\ au)toi\ u(pe/streyan ei)$  )Ierousalh\m meta/ xara=$ mega/lh$ “and they turned back unto Jerusalem with great joy…” (without proskunh/sante$ au)ton “worshiping him”).
    See how this shorter version of vv. 50-53 reads, in context, in conventional translation:
    “And he led them out toward Bethany, and raising his hands over (them) he blessed them; and it came to be, in his blessing them, (that) he parted from them; and they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the Temple, blessing God.”

These are both so-called Western “Non-Interpolations”, i.e. instances where the shorter reading of the (usually longer and more expansive) Western text has been thought (by some scholars) to preserve the original reading in the face of superior manuscript evidence (I have discussed the other seven key “Non-Interpolations” in a previous post). The first of these two (in v. 51) is far more significant, especially since, in addition to the Western MSS, the shorter reading is also found in the Georgian version (group 1) and the original hand of Codex Sinaiticus (a*).

How is one to explain this variant? As indicated above, the vast majority of MSS, including all the early/best Greek MSS (Ë75, a [corrected], A, B, C, K, L, W, X, D, etc.) contain the words kai a)nefe/reto ei)$ ton ou)rano/n. The manuscript evidence would seem to be decidedly in favor of the longer reading, but internal considerations make it a bit less certain. In which direction did the change occur? There are a number of possibilities:

Reasons for Omission (in support of the longer text):

  1. To avoid contradiction with the chronology in Acts. It is certainly possible that scribes, noticing the apparent discrepancy between v. 51 and Luke’s own account of the Ascension in Acts 1:1-11, deleted the words. In the Gospel, it would seem that the Ascension takes place on the same night as the Resurrection, whereas in Acts (v. 3) it occurs 40 days later. This is probably the most popular explanation.
  2. A scribal mistake. A scribe may have skipped from a)p’ au)twn kai in v. 51 to ou)ranon kai au)toi at the end of v.51 & start of v. 52 (homoioarcton: each has the segment nkai). However, this would require that (the precursors of) a and D both made the same mistake, which is rather unlikely.
  3. Theological reasons. Some scholars have thought that the so-called “Non-Interpolations” (involving the Resurrection appearances and “Ascension”) exhibit a purposeful tendency in the Western text (in Luke-Acts) to eliminate concrete references to the resurrection body of Jesus, and physical nature of the Ascension, etc. With regard to the Ascension in particular, see especially Eldon J. Epp’s article “The Ascension in the Textual Tradition of Luke-Acts”, in New Testament Textual Criticism: Its Significance for Exegesis. Essays in Honor of Bruce M. Metzger. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981, pp. 131-145.
  4. The support of Acts. Acts 1:2 would seem to indicate that the Gospel referenced the Ascension (a&xri h!$ h(me/ra$ … a)nelh/mfqh, “until which day…he was taken up”). Assuming this is the case, it could be (rightly) argued that the author would not say he described an event which he in fact did not record. It should be noted that several Western witnesses (gig, quotations in Augustine and Vigilius) also omit reference to the ascension (a)nelh/mfqh) in this verse.

Reasons for Addition (in support of the shorter text):

  1. Literary or Theological reasons. Although Luke-Acts may have been published together as a ‘two-volume’ work, by the mid-second century (at the latest), the Gospel of Luke was being copied and distributed bound together (in codex form) with the other Gospels; meaning that, as in nearly all printed New Testament editions today, it was separated from the book of Acts. The shorter reading, if original, would close the Gospel with the suggestion that Jesus simply “parted” from the disciples—a rather unexciting and possibly misleading conclusion. The scribal tendency was always to add Christological details, rather than remove them; it would have been natural to add the few extra words (both in v. 51 and 52), in order to exalt the portrait of Christ.
  2. The shorter text removes the chronological difficulty with Acts. This argument cuts both ways (see above), for the longer text could be said to be the more difficult reading (lectio difficilior potior). However, since Luke explicitly records the Ascension taking place at least 40 days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3ff), would he (the same author of Luke-Acts, by general consensus) have created the confusion by recording the Ascension (apparently) taking place on the day of the Resurrection (Luke 24:50-53)?
  3. Additional support from Acts. It is possible that the phrase a&xri h!$ h(me/ra$ … a)nelh/mfqh (“until which day…he was taken up”) in Acts 1:2 should not be taken to imply that the Ascension was narrated in the Gospel, but only events which took place prior to that day. In this regard, to note the reference (v. 22) in Peter’s subsequent address (Acts 1:15-22), where nearly similar language is used. Could the author of Acts simply be reproducing the phrasing from v. 22, as part of his “prologue”, without specific reference to details in the Gospel?
  4. Evidence from the Church Fathers. The Ascension is referred to numerous times in writings of the 1st-3rd centuries, for example: Epistle of Barnabas 15; JUSTIN: 1 Apology 26, Dialogue with Trypho 82, 87, On the Resurrection ch. 9; IRENAEUS: Against Heresies I.10, III.17, IV.33.13, 34.3, V.31, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 41, 84; CLEMENT: Stromateis VI. ch. 15; ORIGEN: On First Principles Pref §1, II.6.1, 7.2, On Prayer §23, Against Celsus VII.8; TERTULLIAN: Against Marcion V.8, Against Praxeas 25, 30, Prescription Against Heretics 13, On the Resurrection 51; The Muratorian Canon; Epistle of the Apostles 18; Cyprian On the Lord’s Prayer §8, etc. (by no means an exhaustive list). Most of these references are to the narrative in Acts 1:9ff; Ephesians 4:9-10, or to the belief generally; however, I have not been able to find a single clear reference to the long text of Luke 24:51-52 cited in any writing up through the third century (outside of the Diatessaron [§55], a work with a singularly difficult textual history). Moreover, in Tertullian’s fourth book Against Marcion, in which he goes over many details of Luke’s Gospel, up through the Resurrection appearances (chapter 43), he does not cite the long text of v. 51 or 52, and makes no reference to the Ascension (cf. Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, pp. 257-8).
  5. The Western Non-Interpolations. Despite protests from scholars on both sides of the argument, it is hard to avoid the notion that the 9 key “non-interpolations”, eight of which are all found together in the same set of MSS (D a b d e ff2 l), stand or fall together—most likely, they are all original, or they are not. If one accepts the shorter text in the previous 7 Lukan instances, then one really ought to do so here as well.

Clearly, intrinsic/transcriptional arguments can be made for sides. Ultimately, it is difficult to ignore the overwhelming textual evidence. If the longer reading is, in fact, original, I suspect that the apparent discrepancy (with Acts) may be the result of Luke compressing/conflating the narrative, thereby giving the impression that it all happened on one night. This sort of handling of historical narrative was quite common with ancient writers, as unsatisfying as it might be to our modern sensibilities. On the other hand, the clear scribal tendency was to add significant Christological details to the Gospel narrative, rather than omit them (even when there are apparent discrepancies involved); it seems to have been much more acceptable to modify (instead of deleting) difficult words in the text. The presence of the longer reading(s) in the Bodmer Papyri (Ë75, c. 200) have turned the tide decisively; however, I am by no means so certain the shorter reading(s) can be dismissed as easily as many commentators do today.

(To be continued…)


March 29 — Easter Week, continued

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The major text-critical question in the Resurrection Narratives involves the so-called “Western Non-Interpolations” in the Gospel of Luke. This rather awkward term stems from the analysis by Westcott & Hort (principally Hort) in their landmark The New Testament in the Original Greek (1881, vol. II pp.175-177), regarding situations where, despite superior manuscript evidence to the contrary, the Western Text may have the original reading. In general, the “Western Text” (as represented by Codex Bezae [D], key Old Latin [and Old Syriac] MSS, and other versional witnesses), was deemed inferior to the so-called “Neutral Text” (exemplified esp. by Codex Vaticanus [B])—this view, with some modification (and different language), continues to be held by most critical scholars today. Particularly in Luke-Acts, the “Western Text” tends to have longer readings at key variation-units—expanding or adding clarifying detail to the text. It is all the more noticeable, then, on those rare occasions when D (and other Western witnesses) happen to contain a shorter reading. When this fact (cf. the principle lectio brevio potior, “the shorter reading is preferrable”) is combined with intrinsic or transcriptional probability in favor of the shorter text, one must then contend with the possibility that the Western reading is original. Hence the term “Western Non-Interpolation”: i.e., the majority text contains an interpolation (an added verse or phrase), contrary to the shorter (original) Western text.

Westcott & Hort identified 27 shorter Western readings of note: six were deemed unlikely to be original, twelve others considered possibly (but probably not) original, and nine regarded as “probably original”. These nine (the “Non-Interpolations”) are: Matthew 27:49; Luke 22:19b-20; 24:3, 6, 12, 36, 40, 51, 52. For some time, critical scholars tended to favor this approach; however, in recent decades, with the discovery of the Bodmer Papyri (esp. Ë75), the pendulum has swung decidedly in the opposite direction—the majority of scholars, on the whole, now reject these shorter Western readings. Indeed, Ë75 (early 3rd century?) contains the longer (majority) reading for all 8 Lukan “Non Interpolations”, greatly strengthening the already impressive external evidence for them. On the other hand, the strongest argument in favor of the shorter readings is one of transcriptional probability—no one has really been able to offer a good explanation as to how (or why) the longer readings, if original, would have been deleted. Moreover, nearly all of the majority readings in these instances involve (possible) harmonizations to other portions of the New Testament (see notes below) as well as significant Christological details, both of which are more likely to represent scribal additions than details scribes would have ever deleted. For a fairly thorough defense in favor of the Lukan “Non-Interpolations”, see B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture Oxford:1993, pp. 197-232.

There is the problem: on the one side, the external manuscript evidence is decidedly in favor of the longer readings, internal transcriptional evidence seems clearly to favor the shorter. Interestingly, all of the nine “Non-Interpolations” are from the Passion and Resurrection narratives (8 from the Lukan), and all but two (7) from the Resurrection/Ascension accounts in Luke 24 (common to virtually the same set of manuscripts). This cannot be coincidental, nor do I think it can be accidental. In other words, whichever set of readings (longer/shorter) is correct, the changes seem to have been both deliberate and consistent in Luke 24. Either scribes added text (interpolations), perhaps to harmonize with John’s account (see below) etc. and/or enhance the Christological portrait, or they deleted the text, for reasons that are as yet not entirely clear.

Luke 24:3

Here is a translation of the majority text of vv. 1-4, with the words in question italicized:

1And on (day) one of the week, of deep dawn [i.e. early at dawn], upon the memorial [i.e. tomb] they came carrying spices which they had made ready. 2And they found the stone having been rolled (away) from the memorial, 3but going into (it) they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4And it came to be in their being without a way-through [i.e. as they were at a loss] about this, and see!—two men stood upon [i.e. next to] them in flashing clothes…

Manuscripts D a b d e ff2 l r1 do not include the words tou= ku/riou  )Ihsou=. They may have been added to specify and make clear what would otherwise be implied: that it was truly Jesus’ body missing from the tomb. If the words did not drop out by accident, it is hard to explain why a scribe (on orthodox one, at least) would have removed them. A few manuscripts (579 1241 pc syrs, c, p bohms) read simply tou=  )Ihsou=.

Luke 24:6

The same group of Western manuscripts (along with Georgian MS B) do not include the words ou)k e&stin w!de a)lla\ e)ge/rqh from the angelic announcement. Here is a translation of the majority text (with italicized words):

5And at their [i.e. the women] coming to be afraid and bending th(eir) faces into the earth, they [i.e. the men/angels] said to them, “(For) what [i.e. why] do you seek the living amid the dead? 6He is not here, but he has risen! Remember how he spoke to you…”

Luke 24:12

Almost the same group of Western MSS (along with several Syriac witnesses [and Marcion?]) do not include verse 12 at all. The majority text reads:

o( de\ Pe/tro$ a)nasta\$ e&dramen e)pi\ to mnmei=on kai\ paraku/ya$ ble/pei ta\ o)qo/nia [kei/mena] mo/na, kai\ a)ph=lqen pro\$ e(auto\n qauma/zwn to\ gegono/$

But Peter, standing up, ran upon [i.e. ran to] the memorial [i.e. tomb] and bending alongside he saw the cloths [laying] alone, and he went from (there) toward his own (home), wondering at the (thing which) had come to be [i.e. what had happened]

This is of course quite similar to the account in John 20:4-5f, enough that scholars who favor the shorter reading view the verse as a harmonizing interpolation. The word kei/mena (not in Ë75 a B W etc) is probably a simple harmonization; however, otherwise, there are enough differences (including all of 12b), that this is less likely for the verse as a whole. On the other hand, the sequence from verse 11 to 13 reads smoother without v. 12:

11and these words [i.e. the women’s report] shined in their face [i.e. appeared to them] as if idle-talk, and they [i.e. the apostles] did not trust them [i.e. the women]. 13And see—two of them [i.e. disciples/apostles] in the self(-same) day were travelling unto a village…

It is also much more effective dramatically without v. 12, leading up to the revelation at Emmaus; it can be argued that the announcement in v. 34 (“the Lord has been seen by Simon!”) is more dramatic this way as well. That being said, what of the (internal) evidence—the intrinsic or transcriptional probability—for inclusion/exclusion of the verse? I find the argument for simple harmonization with John to be weak; I am also unconvinced by the idea that the verse was added to make better sense of v. 34. A much stronger argument is that the verse was added (whether from John, or more likely a separate tradition) to soften the image of the unbelieving apostles in v. 11—not all of them mistrusted the women, Peter responded aggressively to see for himself! What of reasons for scribes’ deleting the verse? Apart from the fact that the narrative reads better without v.12 (the plural pronoun and copulative kai arguably connect more readily with v.11), it is hard to come up with a good explanation.

Luke 24:36

Here the opening of Jesus’ introduction—kai\ le/gei au)toi=$: ei)rh/nh u(mi=n—is not included by the same group of Western manuscripts (D a b d e ff2 l r1). Again, let us examine the context in translation (disputed words italicized):

36And as they spoke this, (Jesus) himself stood in the middle of them and says to them: “Peace to you”. 37But being terrified and coming to be in fear, they seemed to gaze at a ‘spirit’. 38And he said to them, “(For) what [i.e. why] are you disturbed…?”

The scene makes more immediate sense without the words—Jesus suddenly appears in their midst and they are terrified (presumably not recognizing him, cf. v. 16ff). There would seem to be less reason for such sudden, extreme fear, after the words of greeting (“Peace to you”). In this instance, a harmonization with John (20:19) is perhaps more likely than in Luke 24:12. As for omission, if the words did not fall out accidentally, why would they have been deleted? Again, it is hard to come up with a reason.

Luke 24:40

Here, as at 24:12, and entire verse is missing from (the same group) of Western manuscripts, along with the Curetonian and Sinaitic Syriac. The verse reads:

kai\ tou=to ei)pw\n e&deicen au)toi=$ ta\$ xei=ra$ kai\ tou\$ po/da$
“and having said this, he showed them the hands and the feet”

A harmonization with John 20:20 is certainly possible. On the other hand, I would say that there is at least a plausible reason for scribes omitting the words, as they may have appeared superfluous or redundant directly following v. 39.

Luke 24:51-52

These two variations units are, in some ways, even more controversial, and are better left to an (upcoming) article on the Ascension.

One of the reasons earlier scholars more readily favored the “Non-Interpolations” of vv. 12, 36, and 40, was the understandable assumption that these were scribal harmonizations (of a sort all too common in the manuscripts) with the parallel passage in John. However, commentators today tend to prefer the view that Luke and John (in the Passion and Resurrection narratives, at least) both draw from a common tradition, which explains their sharing certain details not found in Matthew-Mark.

From a text-critical point of view, however, it should be reiterated that the internal evidence favors all of the Lukan “Non-interpolations” (in chapter 24). The two overriding arguments:

  1. Scribes are more likely to have harmonized the text (to another Gospel passage) by adding to it, than to eliminate a harmonization by deleting the text.
  2. Scribes are more likely to add details enhancing or expanding the portrait of Christ, than to delete them. One indisputable fact is that for all seven instances in Luke 24, the longer (majority) text adds vivid or significant detail related to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection not found in the corresponding Western text.

All things considered, it is safest to defer to the overwhelming external evidence in favor of the longer readings. Yet, in studying and meditating upon the Resurrection accounts in Luke, I would urge care and consideration—if we wish to understand the inspired original text, such significant textual variants must be given their due.


March 23 — The Anointing of Jesus

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Traditionally, the anointing of Jesus at Bethany inaugurates the Passion as celebrated during Holy Week. In addition to its poignancy, and spiritual teaching, the episode (or episodes) are immensely instructive for studying the ways in which the Gospel writers may have dealt with early tradition. Each Gospel contains an Anointing episode: Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-8. The account in Matthew and Mark, occurring after Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem, is virtually identical; John’s account is similar, but is placed prior to Jesus’ Entry; Luke’s account is, in most respects, quite different, and is set earlier in Jesus’ ministry. A strict traditional-conservative approach might end up positing three separate events, but this is quite improbable; the choice, rather, is between one event, or two. Many critical scholars posit a single incident which branched off in early tradition to form the kernel of the Gospel narratives we have now. A more reasonable critical approach, I think, is to assume two historical episodes: one matching Matthew/Mark and John, one matching that found in Luke. Very straightforward; however, the situation is actually more complicated than that. For, despite the very different setting of Luke’s account, there are details which curiously match John’s account (against Matthew/Mark), and even several which match the account in Matthew/Mark (against John). I offer some comparisons here below; since Matthew and Mark are nearly identical, I will use Mark’s account for comparison.

Details common to Mark/Matthew and John:

  1. Setting in Bethany, near the time of Passover, in proximity to the time of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Mark 14:1, 3; John 12:1, 9ff)
  2. A woman (apparently a disciple: in John it is Mary of Bethany) pours perfume on Jesus as he reclines (Mark 14:3; John 12:2)
  3. The perfume is very costly (Mark 14:3; John 12:2; John and Mark use almost exact language: perfume of costly “pure nard”)
  4. The disciples (in John it is Judas Iscariot) decry the waste (Mark 14:4-5; John 12:4-5)
  5. Mention is made of the cost, and that the money could be sold and given to the poor (Mark and John use almost identical language, including mention of the price [“300 denari”])
  6. Jesus rebukes the disciples and mentions that the perfume was intended to be used for his burial (Mark 14:6, 8; John 12:7)
  7. The saying “For the poor you always have with you…” (Mark 14:7; John 12:8)

Details common to John and Luke:

  1. The anointing/wetting is of the feet (John 12:3; Luke 7:38), instead of the head (Mark 14:3)
  2. Mention is specifically made of “anointing” (form of a)lei/fw, John 12:3; Luke 7:38), instead of “pouring [out]” (kataxe/w, Mark 14:3)
  3. Mention is made of wiping Jesus feet with her hair (however, in Luke the woman wipes her tears; in John, apparently, she wipes the perfume [?])

Details common to Mark/Matthew and Luke:

  1. The name of the man hosting the feast is, apparently, Simon (Mark 14:3; Luke 7:40ff)—apparently, two different men with the same name [?]
  2. Mention is made of the woman carrying an “alabaster box/jar” [a)la/bastron] (Mark 14:3; Luke 7:37)

How does one explain so many coincidental details across two very different story settings (Matthew/Mark & John vs. Luke)? Critical scholars generally assume details have been transferred/distorted during transmission (presumably in the early oral stage); but I wonder, at least in the case of Luke. It is noteworthy that Luke contains no Passion-week Anointing scene, which is strange, if, as many scholars assume, he knew and made use of Mark’s Gospel. It also seems most unlikely that he could have confused the story he records in 7:36-50 with the later Bethany scene. This, perhaps, could be seen as evidence that Luke did not use Mark; but, I think it at least possible that Luke has intentionally omitted the Bethany scene (from whatever common tradition he knew), and has merged details from it into his own account set earlier in the ministry. This might explain the curious detail of anointing Jesus’ feet (v. 38): tears falling on his feet makes more sense, but pouring perfume on the feet? Yet the author had to know as well how odd this might appear—either, then, he simply records an unusual fact, or he purposefully includes the detail from the Bethany scene in the context of the sinful woman. Even harder to explain is John’s mention of anointing the feet, since the parallel account in Matthew/Mark specifically mentions anointing the head (not the feet). Is it possible that John has intentionally modified his narrative, just as Luke has, but in the opposite direction?— details from the anointing by the ‘sinful Woman’ (which John does not record) have merged into his account of the Anointing at Bethany. Whether accidental (in early transmission) or intentional (by the Gospel writer), details between the two stories have somehow merged together. Is it justifiable or proper to read the texts this way?

From the standpoint of Church Tradition, of course, such a ‘merging’ clearly occurred. For the “Mary” of John’s account (who is Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus), became joined together with the “Sinful Woman” of Luke’s account, in the figure of Mary Magdalene. Under the influence of Luke 8:2 (and Mark 16:9), which states that “seven daimons went out of” her, the traditional story developed of Mary’s former life as a prostitute, from which she repented and became a follower of Jesus. When she appears at the tomb, the perfume she carries (for anointing Jesus’ body) is the same with which she anointed him once before!

Perhaps we should at least consider meditating on both women at the same time: the devout disciple (Mary) who anoints Jesus’ head (and feet?) as an act of worship and consecration; with the (anonymous) “sinful” woman who wipes tears and anoints Jesus’ feet as an act of worship and repentance. “Righteous and Sinner at the same time”, in Luther’s famous phrase (simul iustus et peccator). John’s Gospel sums up the scene (and result) of this offering beautifully: h( de\ oi)ki/a e)plhrw/qh e)k th=$ o)smh=$ tou= mu/rou, “and the house was filled of the smell of perfume” (12:3).

The image of the repentant Magdalene came to be very popular in the West, a symbol of penitence and the ascetic ideal—a visceral image to be sure, very suited to individual dynamism of the Renaissance (one thinks immediately of Donatello’s great sculpture, see right). The story of her life as prostitute, her conversion, repentance, and appearance at the tomb on Easter, expanded in legend over the years, culminating with her appearance (along with Martha and Lazarus) in southern France. The Magdalene story would go on to maintain a position in both art and ritual for centuries in the Western Church.