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Biblical Criticism

Saturday Series: Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11

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This Saturday I am interrupting the current series of discussions centered on passages in the Gospel of John to explore the Ascension of Jesus. This past Thursday (May 30) was the traditional day commemorating the Ascension (40 days after the Resurrection, according to Acts 1:3), and the Sunday following (tomorrow) is sometimes referred to as “Ascension Sunday”. It so happens that the Ascension narratives (in Luke-Acts) are extremely instructive for those wishing to learn more about Biblical (New Testament) criticism. I have dealt with the critical questions in some detail in an earlier 3-part article (“Where Did Jesus Go…?“), which I recommend if you wish to dig deeper into the matter. Here I introduce the discussion in terms of three essential aspects of Scriptural study:

  1. Textual criticism—what is the most likely original reading, and how or why was it modified?
  2. Historical criticism—what is the historical-traditional background; how was it developed and how do the literary and historical “levels” relate?
  3. Theological factors and interpretation—we might call this “doctrinal criticism”, i.e. how do our beliefs about Jesus and the nature of the Scriptures relate to the text?
1. Textual Criticism (Lk 24:50-53)

The textual-critical question primarily involves the text of Luke 24:50-53. If you are reading in a standard English translation, or have a reliable critical edition of the Greek (such as the UBS/Nestle-Aland edition), your version of Luke 24:50-53 likely reflects the so-called Majority text (MT)—that is, the reading of the majority of manuscripts and other textual witnesses. However, if you examine, for example, the footnotes in your Bible, you will find mention that certain “Western” manuscripts (Codex Bezae [D], Old Latin a b d e ff2 l, and the Sinaitic Syriac) omit or do not include portions found in the MT of verses 51 and 52. There are two variation units where this occurs:

  1. Verse 51 reads: kai egéneto en tœ¡ eulogeín autón autoús diést¢ ap’ autœ¡n “and it came to be, in his blessing them, he stood (apart) from them” (without kai anephéreto eis ton ouranón “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 autoi hypéstrepsan eis Ierousal¢¡m metá charás megál¢s “and they turned back unto Jerusalem with great joy…” (without proskyn¢¡santes auton “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 witness, including all the early/best Greek manuscripts, contain the words “and he was carried up into the heaven”. 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 ap’ autœn kai in v. 51 to ouranon kai autoi at the end of v.51 & start of v. 52 (homoioarcton: each has the segment nkai).
  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.
  4. The support of Acts. Acts 1:2 would seem to indicate that the Gospel referenced the Ascension (“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 also omit reference to the ascension 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. This means 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 and have the Gospel close with a reference to the Ascension.
  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 áchri h¢¡s h¢mérasanel¢¡mphth¢ (“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, 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 (see my earlier article for a list of these). 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).
  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 manuscripts (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, sound arguments can be made for both sides. Ultimately, it is difficult to ignore the overwhelming textual evidence in favor of the Majority text (i.e., the longer reading). 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 difficult words in the text, rather than deleting them. The presence of the longer reading(s) in the early Bodmer Papyri (Ë75, c. 200 A.D.) has turned the tide decisively for most scholars.

2. Historical Criticism (Lk 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11, etc)

If we regarding the longer (Majority) text of Luke 24:50-53 to be original, there are still a number of important historical-critical questions to be considered. In particular, there would seem to be a discrepancy between Lk 24:51-52 and Acts 1:3ff—in the former, the ascension apparently takes place on the night of the Resurrection (that evening), whereas in the Acts narrative (1:9-11) it is set at least 40 days later. Most scholars believe that 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 as 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” (akribœ¡s) and in order (anatáxasthai, v. 1; kathex¢¡s, 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 any 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.

The historical-critical question is complicated by the Synoptic tradition, in Mark (through 16:8) and Matthew, of Jesus’ final(?) appearance to the disciples in Galilee, where, one might assume, his departure (ascension) would have taken place. This contrasts with the traditions in Luke-Acts and John where Jesus appears to his disciples in Jerusalem—in Luke-Acts they specifically remain in Jerusalem, with no reference at all to an appearance in Galilee. For those seeking to harmonize all the New Testament passages, this is made even more difficult by the Gospel of John, in which, while it contains no narration of an ascension, records Jesus stating that he is about to “step up” to the Father (20:17)—an event which apparently would take place prior to his appearance to the disciples (rather than after, as in Luke-Acts), though this is not entirely clear. The so-called “Long Ending” of Mark (16:9-20) makes passing reference to the ascension in v. 19, generally following the tradition in Acts.

3. Theological Factors and Interpretation

A proper method of Biblical criticism would have textual and historical criticism precede any subsequent theological or doctrinal interpretation. That is to say, one should seek to establish the text, along with an understanding of its historical (and traditional) background, before attempting any interpretation on theological grounds. The temptation, of course, will always be present to “read in” one’s theological/doctrinal beliefs, into the text, whether or not it is supported by the text itself.

The problem with the Ascension of Jesus is that there are very few direct references to it, either in the New Testament or in early Christian literature, which makes theological interpretation difficult. Apart from the main passages mentioned above, only Ephesians 4:8-10 could be cited as referring to the Ascension (see Part 3 of the aforementioned article). More commonly, reference is made to Christ’s exaltation (usually involving either the verb hypsóœ, “to raise high” or adjective hyps¢lós, “high”; see Acts 2:33; 5:31; Philippians 2:9; Hebrews 1:3; 7:26, etc), or to his being in heaven at the “right (hand)” (dexiós, that is, the giving/receiving hand) of God (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). This is true even in the book of Acts itself, where the Ascension, as such, is narrated in rather cursory fashion (1:9-11, note the obvious parallels to the Resurrection narrative). By contrast, in the early Christian preaching and related episodes, the idea of Jesus’ exaltation and presence at the right-hand of God is much more prominent.

If we look carefully at the references to the Ascension in the narrative of Luke-Acts, we see that it is closely tied to the coming of the Spirit. Both in Luke 24:44-53 [MT] and Acts 1:2-11, the Ascension follows soon after a directive to the disciples that they should remain in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes down upon them from the Father (Lk 24:48-49; Acts 1:4-5, 8). Furthermore, though it is narrated quite differently, drawing upon separate lines of tradition, in both the Gospels of Luke and John, the coming of the Spirit to the disciples follows close upon a reference to Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:9-11; 2:1-44ff; John 20:17, 22-23). For more on the subject of the sending of the Spirit in Luke-Acts and John, respectively, see my earlier article. In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes the point that, unless he departs from the disciples (back to the Father), the Spirit will not come (16:7). Thus, the association with the Spirit is the first theological point, or theme, which we may draw from the text.

Second, I would emphasize the thematic connection with the Resurrection itself. The reference in Lk 24:51-52 MT is part of the Lukan Resurrection narrative, and Acts 1:9-11 is written to bring out the similarities with Lk 24:1-8. On this aspect of the Ascension, see Part 2 of the previously mentioned article (“Where Did Jesus Go…?”). In terms of the development of early tradition, the Ascension in Luke-Acts serves as the historical/narrative transition between the Resurrection and the Exaltation of Jesus (see above). The former is the subject of Luke 24, while the latter features in the preaching, etc, recorded in Acts 2-7ff. In between, we have the Ascension and the Coming of the Spirit (Lk 24:50-53; Acts 1:2-2:4ff).

Third, the Ascension is connected to the presence of Jesus in heaven, at the right hand of God. For early Christians, this was a central tenet of their preaching, and was related to the idea of Jesus’ return to earth at the time of the great Judgment. This is abundantly clear from the language and tone of the early Gospel proclamation (Acts 2:33-40; 3:19-21; 10:40-42; 13:32-41; 17:31, etc). Stephen’s vision of Jesus in 7:55-56 is obviously related to the Gospel tradition in Mark 14:62 par, which referrs to the appearance of the “Son of Man” (Dan 7:13-14) at the end-time Judgment (see also Mk 8:38; 13:24-27 par, etc). This same eschatological emphasis is found in the Ascension narrative itself in Acts 1:9-11.

These are just three fundamental theological points which can be drawn out of the text, to which others could be added, though with caution. One of the most interesting developments of the ascension-motif is found in the Gospel of John, where certain keywords, used in association with the Ascension, are given special meaning in the context of the Gospel. Two of these are the verbs anabaínœ (“step up”) and hypsóœ (“raise/lift high”). The first verb appears often (16 times), along with the related katabaínœ (“step down”), part of a descent/ascent motif that is central to the Christology of the Fourth Gospel. For the second verb (hypsóœ) it occurs 5 times, in three important passages (3:14 [twice]; 8:28; 12:32, 34). I will be discussing the 8:28 reference, especially, in next week’s post.

If you have not already done so, I would ask that you read and study chapters 7-8 of the Gospel most carefully, noting the complex structure (with or without 7:53-8:11), along with the various themes, motifs and keywords from the earlier discourses, and they way they are developed. Consider how 8:28 fits into this structure—especially its place in 8:12-59. And I will see you next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 6:51-58

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John 6:51-58

One controversial aspect of Biblical Criticism has to do with determining how the original text came to be in its current, or final, shape—that is to say, how the various historical traditions were pieced together, in the case of the Gospels, to form a continuous narrative from start to finish. This is sometimes referred to as composition criticism, or redaction criticism—analyzing the work of the author or editor (redactor) in composing the text. Even traditional-conservative commentators recognize that a considerable amount of editing of traditions, sayings, and narrative episodes has taken place in the composition of the Gospels. Critical scholars have pointed out many apparent seams in the text, where originally separate material has likely (or possibly) been joined together.

We have been exploring the Gospel of John in this series, and one particular portion of that Gospel has continued to challenge commentators—the great Bread of Life discourse in chapter 6. I have discussed this long and complex discourse in a number of earlier notes and articles, including the most recent daily note. There are many ways to analyze and outline the discourse. You will find one presented in the aforementioned note; I give a slightly different outline, covering the entire chapter, further below.

An especially difficult question of interpretation involves the relationship of verses 51-58 to the earlier portion of the discourse (vv. 22-50), and also to what follows in vv. 60-71. A major difficulty has to do with the apparent eucharistic language and imagery Jesus uses in vv. 51-58. In some ways, it seems out of place. Would his fellow Jews at the time have understood these motifs of “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood” at all? Critical commentators have often questioned whether the eucharistic allusions genuinely come from Jesus, or if they are the product of early Christians relating the “Bread of Life” and Passover themes to the ritual of the Lord’s Supper.

All four Gospels record Jesus’ “Last Supper” with his disciples (Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-23ff; John 13:1-30), but with a well-known chronological difference: the Synoptics indicate that it was a Passover meal (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; and especially Luke 22:7), the 14/15th of Nisan; while John records Jesus’ death during the preparation for Passover, 14th Nisan (John 19:14; also see 12:1). A number of solutions have been offered to explain or harmonize the difference between the accounts, none, I should say, being entirely satisfactory. Much more interesting, however, is the fact that John records no institution of the sacrament (Lord’s Supper), attention rather being given to a different kind of symbolic and ritual act—Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet (13:3-20). In fact, the only mention of the bread and cup would seem to be in the earlier “Bread of Life” discourse. This has prompted many scholars to ask if perhaps vv. 51-58 have been inserted by the author/redactor into the current location from a traditional Last Supper setting.

But this raises an even more significant question of interpretation: do verses 51-58, in fact, refer to the Eucharist—that is, to the material sacrament? As I will discuss below, I do not think the primary reference is to the sacrament. However, here are some arguments in favor of a sacramental reference:

  1. Suddenly, in place of Jesus himself (or his words) identified with the Bread from Heaven (“the Bread [which] came down from Heaven”, ho ek toú ouranoú katabás, see especially verse 51), we hear of “eating his flesh” (phág¢te t¢¡n sárka) and “drinking his “blood” (pí¢te auoú to haíma) (vv. 53-56)
  2. The verb (trœ¡gœ) used in verse 56, conveys a very concrete image of eating (literally “striking” or “crunching” away; in colloquial English it might be rendered “munching”). This would suggest a physical eating (of a material sacrament) and not simply a spiritual appropriation.
  3. It is most unlikely that the Gospel of John would not have some reference to the Eucharist, and this is the only passage which fits.
  4. The ’embedded’ reference to the Eucharist is parallel to a similar reference to the sacrament of Baptism in the Discourse with Nicodemus (see 3:5)
  5. The Bread of Life Discourse follows the Feeding of the Multitude, which, in all four Gospels, is described using Eucharistic language (see my earlier note on this), and presumably was understood in connection with the Eucharist from earliest times.
  6. One critical argument is that a redactor of the final version of the Gospel intentionally added in more specific sacramental details in order to modify or qualify an otherwise “spiritualist” teaching.

What about the idea that the author (or redactor) added Eucharistic teachings of Jesus to the discussion of vv. 25-50? One can certainly see how verse 51(b) could have been a connection point with the prior teachings on the “Bread from Heaven” (expounding the Passover theme of the Manna), as well as teaching on the Eucharist. The mention of “flesh” (ho ártos de hón egœ¡ dœ¡sœ h¢ sárx mou estin hyper t¢¡s toú kosmoú zœ¢¡s, “and the bread which I will give over [i.e. on behalf of] the life of the world is my flesh“) would lead naturally to discussion of the Eucharist.

The situation is complicated when one looks at what follows vv. 51-58—namely, verses 60-71, especially verse 63: to pneúma estin to zœopoioún, h¢ sárx ouk œpheleí ouden (“the Spirit is th[at which] makes live, the flesh benefits nothing”). The tone of this portion seems to be at odds with a reference to the material sacrament—that is, a ritual partaking of bread and wine—in vv. 51-58. A number of critical scholars have noted that reading 6:25-50 and 60-71 in sequence makes good sense, while including vv. 51-58 creates an interpretive difficulty. R. E. Brown, in his commentary (Anchor Bible 29 pp. 302-303), takes the precarious step of assuming both that vv. 51-58 were added by a redactor, and that we should read vv. 60-71 as relating to vv. 25-50 but not to vv. 51-58.

In my view, it is important to look at the Gospel as it has come down to us, whether or not sayings of Jesus from different contexts have been combined together to give it its current form. I would outline the chapter, as a whole, as follows:

  • 6:1-14: The Miraculous Feeding, which includes Eucharist language and imagery [vv. 11-13] + transitional verse 15
  • [6:16-21: The traditional episode of the Jesus’ Walking on the Water to meet his disciples]
  • [6:22-24: Transitional section which sets the scene]
  • 6:25-30: Discussion of the Miraculous Feeding, with a saying of Jesus on the “work of God” (toúto estin to érgon toú theoú, hína pisteú¢te eis hón apésteilen ekeínos, “this is the work of God: that you should trust in the [one] whom that one sent”, v. 29)
  • 6:31-59: The Bread of Life Discourse, which I break down into four parts:
    a) The Scripture reference (“Bread from Heaven”), and Jesus’ initial exposition: 6:31-33
    b) Crowd (“Lord, give us this bread always”) and Jesus’ Response: egœ¡ eimi ho ártos t¢¡s zœ¢¡s (“I Am the bread of life…”), 6:34-40
    c) ‘The Jews’ reaction to “I am the Bread”/”which came down out of Heaven” and Jesus’ Response, 6:41-51
    d) ‘The Jews’ reaction to “The Bread that I will give…is my flesh” and Jesus’ Response, 6:52-58 + concluding note v. 59
  • 6:60-71: Discussion of the Bread of Life Discourse (the Disciples’ Reaction), in two parts:
    a) The reaction “This is a rough account [i.e. word/saying], who is able to hear it?” and Jesus’ Response, 6:60-65
    b) The turning away of many disciples, with Peter’s response (“you have words of life [of the] Age [i.e. eternal life]”), 6:66-71

Here I view vv. 51-58 as integral to the Discourse as we have it. The “flesh and blood” of vv. 53-56 is an intensification and expansion of the imagery in verse 51: the “bread that he gives” is his “flesh [and blood]”—compare verses 51 and 54:

eán tis phág¢ ek toútou toú ártou
(“If someone should [actually] eat out of [i.e. from] this bread…”)
ho trœ¡gœn mou t¢¡n sárka kai pínœn mou to haíma
(“The [one] chewing [‘chopping at’] my flesh and drinking my blood…“)

z¢¡sei eis tón aiœ¡na (“…he shall live into the Age [i.e. have eternal life]”)
échei zœ¢¡n aiœ¡nion (“…has life [of the] Age [i.e. has eternal life]”)

Jesus returns to mention just the bread (again) in the concluding verse 58, which also reiterates the OT scriptural motif that began the Discourse: hoútos estin ho ártos ho ex ouranoú katabás, “this is the bread (which) came down out of heaven”.

Another way to read the core section of the discourse (6:35-58) is in parallel, as though verses 35-50 and 51-58 represented two aspects of the same message. Note the points of similarity:

  • Saying of Jesus: “I am the bread of life / living bread” which begins the section (v. 35a / 51a)
  • Teaching by Jesus expounding the “bread of life” in terms of “coming/believing” and “eating his flesh”, respectively (35b-40 / 51)
  • Question by “the Jews” (grumbling/disputing), reacting (with misunderstanding) to Jesus’ teaching (41-42 / 52)
  • Jesus’ Response: second exposition (43-47 / 53-57)
  • Concluding “Bread of Life” statement, comparing those who ate manna with those who eat the true bread from heaven (48-50 / 58)

Each of these sections follows the basic pattern of the discourses in the Gospel of John. It is interesting that in vv. 35-50, eating as such is not mentioned (until the conclusion, vv. 49-50). Rather, the emphasis is on “coming toward” Jesus and “believing in [lit. trusting into/unto]” him, which is part of the initial statement in verse 35:

“The (one) coming toward me, no he shall not hunger; and the (one) trusting into/unto me, no he will not thirst, never”

This is contrasted with vv. 51-58 where the theme is specifically “eating” (Grk phágœ):

“If (any) one should eat out of this bread he will live into the Age; and the bread which I will give is my flesh, over [i.e. on behalf of] the life of the world” (v. 51b)

“Bread” clearly represents both food and drink in v. 35. This is paralleled in vv. 51-58, where the bread (“flesh”) of v. 51 quickly expands to include “blood” in verse 53ff; it signifies both aspects of human sustenance as well as both primary aspects of the human (physical) constitution, in conventional terms.

How should we relate these two main points of emphasis: (1) “coming/believing” and (2) “eating/drinking”? Is one sapiental (response to Jesus’ words as teaching/wisdom) and the other sacramental (participation in the ritual symbol [eucharist])? Or do they reflect two sets of images corresponding to the single idea of spiritual life in union with Christ? I prefer to regard them as signifying two “levels” for the believer:

  1. The first, that of coming/believing (vv. 35-50), is well served by the use of the two prepositions (pros “toward”, and eis “unto/into”)—the believer approaches Christ through faith, coming, we could even say, “into” him.
  2. At the second level (vv. 51-58), believers commune and nourish themselves—now Christ comes “into” the believer, there is now life in us (see the powerful statement in verse 57).

But is this second level specifically the Eucharist, in a ritual sense?

Within the overall context of the Discourse, the sacrament of the Eucharist may be implied (a preshadowing), but I do not think it is at all primary to Jesus’ teaching. It is rather the Person of Jesus himself and the Life which he conveys—by means of the Spirit—which is central to the message; and it is this “word” (lógos) which the disciples find “rough” or difficult to hear. Too much has been made of verse 63, in a sacramental setting (Eucharist), for in that context it simply gives priority to the Spirit—just as the Spirit takes priority in the context of Baptism (if such is alluded to in 3:5-8). In other words, Spirit first, then sacrament. Too often in Church history, Christians have made it the other way around, as though only through the tangible sacrament (as a “means of grace”), can one truly experience the Spirit. Consider the fierce fighting over the words of the institution (toúto estin to sœ¡ma mou, “this is my body”, Mark 14:22 par.)—all of the ink (and blood) spilled over the significance of “is” (estin)—when it would have been better to focus on the demonstrative pronoun (“this”, touto): that is, not the reality of the sacrament, but the reality of what it signifies.

How would you relate verses 51-58 to the Bread of Life discourse as a whole? If we regard these as authentic words of Jesus, what would they have meant to people at the time? to his disciples? Is there a foreshadowing of the Lord’s Supper as it would be understood by accepted by believers, or is the reference entirely spiritual (v. 63)? Consider these questions and study chapter 6 again in detail. Then go back and examine the parallels between the “Bread of Life” and “Living Water” in chapter 4 (vv. 10ff). Begin to think about what the author is trying to convey by combining these episodes and discourses together as he has done. Pay close attention to the various keywords, motifs and themes which run through the chapters. Then proceed to study the next discourse, beginning in chapter 7, and which most commentators regard as continuing on through the end of chap. 8 (excluding 7:53-8:11). Note any similarities you see, both in structure, and in theme or language, between chs. 7-8 and the previous discourses (especially the Bread of Life, ch. 6).

And I will see you next Saturday.

Saturday Series: John 1:18 (continued)

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Last week I looked at John 1:18, and the three textual variants (or variant readings) in the verse: monogen¢s theos, monogen¢s huios, and monogen¢s . A consideration of these different readings is essential for a correct understanding of this key verse, which is the climactic declaration of the Prologue of John, 1:1-18. But which reading is most likely to be the original? We can probably eliminate monogen¢s alone as a candidate. While attractive as an explanation for the rise of the other two readings, the lack of manuscript support makes it difficult to accept as original. This would leave the readings which include theos (“God”) or huios (“Son”). As I indicated last week, there is strong evidence for each of these.

In textual criticism, there are two aspects which must be considered: (1) the external evidence for a reading, and (2) the internal evidence. By “external evidence” is meant the actual documents in which the particular reading appears (especially the earliest Greek manuscripts). By “internal evidence” we mean all of the various factors which make a particular reading more or less likely to be original. There are three main factors to be considered: (a) transcriptional probability (that is, the tendencies of copyists), (b) the overall style of the author, and (c) the context of the particular passage. The external evidence for these two readings is fairly evenly divided:

  • monogen¢s huios (“only Son“) is read by the majority of manuscripts and versions, etc, spanning a wide (geographic) range by the 3rd century A.D., and including several of the major (early) manuscripts.
  • monogen¢s theos (“only God [born?]”) is the reading of some the “earliest and best” Greek manuscripts, including the Bodmer Papyri (66 and 75).

So, we turn to the three main kinds of internal evidence:

a. Transcriptional probability. When considering the tendencies of copyists, the question must be asked whether a change from one form of the text to another—i.e. from “God” to “Son” or vice versa—occurred by accident or was intentional. For those interested, I have posted a special note discussing the possibility of an accidental change. However, if the change was conscious and/or intentional, we must ask in which direction this most likely occurred. Here, too, the evidence is divided:

  • On the one hand, copyists were more likely to “correct” the text from the rare/difficult reading to one which is more familiar or easier to understand. Here, the choice is obvious: monogen¢s huios (i.e. “only son”) is by far the more natural and straightforward expression, while monogen¢s theos (“only [born?] God”) is quite unusual and rather difficult to interpret.
  • On the other hand, Christian scribes were always much more likely to alter the text to present a more exalted view of Christ, rather than the other way around. From this standpoint, a change from “Son” to “God” is more probable than from “God” to “Son”.

b. The Author’s style and usage. The word monogen¢s, “only (one born)” occurs three other times in the Gospel of John; twice in the discourse of chapter 3:

  • “For God loved the world this (way): so (that) he (even) gave his only Son…” (Jn 3:16)
  • “…the one not trusting has already been judged, (in) that [i.e. because] he has not trusted in the name of the only Son of God” (3:18)

In these two references, monogen¢s is used together with huios (“son”), in order to refer to Jesus as the “only Son” of God (i.e. God’s only Son). The other occurrence also comes from the Prologue (1:14):

“And the Word [Logos] came to be flesh and put down a tent [i.e. dwelt] among us, and we looked/gazed (upon) his splendor—(the) splendor as of (the) only (born Son) alongside (the) Father, full of favor and truth”

Here monogen¢s is used alone, as a kind of substantive—”the only (one)”, “the only (son)”. The reference to “a father” (or “the Father”), would seem to indicate that the word “Son” is implied in context. If there were better manuscript support for monogen¢s alone in verse 18 (see above), it might be confirmed by this usage in v. 14.

We should also note 1 John 4:9, similar in thought and wording to Jn 3:16, which uses huios (“son”) with monogen¢s. Elsewhere in the New Testament, monogen¢s likewise occurs with “son” (or “daughter”)—Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38.

From this standpoint, the internal evidence would overwhelmingly favor monogen¢s huios (“only Son”) in 1:18.

c. The context of Jn 1:1-18. Finally, we must consider carefully the context of the Prologue as a whole. Its basic theme is theological and Christological—identifying Jesus as the eternal, pre-existent Word (Logos) of God (v. 1) who comes to be flesh (v. 14), that is to say, he is born as a human being. The basic structure of the Prologue may be outlined as follows:

  • Vv. 1-4—Christ as the divine, eternal Word and Light; the symmetry of this section may summarized:
    • The Word (v. 1)
      —the life-giving creative power [of God] (vv. 2-3)
    • The Light (v. 4)
  • Vv. 9-13—The Light comes into the World, among his own (people)
  • Vv. 14-17—The Word comes to be (born) as flesh (a human being), dwelling among his people
  • V. 18—Christ as the only Son who reveals the Father

Verses 2-17 certainly describe a process—of revelation (and incarnation)—which becomes increasingly more specific. This is indicated by the distinctive use of three verbs:

  • The divine Word/Light is (eimi [verb of being])—vv. 1-4
  • He comes (erchomai) into the world—vv. 9-13
  • He comes to be [born] (ginomai) as a human being—vv. 14-17
    (Note the same three verbs used in sequence in vv. 15, 30)

The word monogen¢s is first used in v. 14, which clearly refers to Christ (the Word) coming to be born (as a human being). But what is the precise sense of monogen¢s here? There would seem to be two options:

  1. The emphasis is on God being born, i.e. as a Son. This would assume that the fundamental etymology of monogen¢s—as the only one (who has) come to be (born)—is in view.
  2. What is emphasized is Jesus as the only/unique (Son) of God. This is the more natural/common meaning of monogen¢s.

The second is to be preferred. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as “the Son”, in relation to the Father. It is an essential relationship, which is not necessarily determined by his time on earth (as a human being). We can fairly assume that the same meaning of monogen¢s is in view in verse 18. However, first consider the way verses 14-17 are framed (note the words in italics):

  • “The Word came to be flesh…and we looked upon his splendor [i.e. like Moses looked upon God], the splendor as of an only (Son) of the Father, full of favor and truth” (v. 14)
  • “…we have received out of his fullness…for the Law was given through Moses [i.e. who looked upon God’s splendor], but favor and truth came to be through Jesus Christ” (v. 17)

This is a powerful dual-statement regarding how the glory and truth of God have been manifest (revealed) in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. So now we come to the concluding declaration of verse 18, which I take to be parallel with verses 1-4. I we may discern a certain kind of relationship with verse 1 in particular:

  • “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with [literally, toward] God, and the Word was God” (v. 1)
  • “…the only [Son/God]—the one being in [literally, into] the lap of the Father—that (one) brought him out to us” (v. 18)

The first portion of verse 18 (“No one has ever seen God”) connects immediately back to vv. 16-17 and the motifs of Moses and the possibility of seeing/beholding the glory of God. The remainder of v. 18 may be intended to mirror v. 1; I suggest the possible parallels:

  • The Word was in the beginning (with God)
    —The Word was facing/looking toward God
    ——The Word was God
    ——The Only Son (of God), i.e. the reflection of the Father
    —The Son is facing[?] into the lap of the Father (i.e. essential Sonship)
  • The Son brings out (reveals) the Father to us.

There is no way to decide with absolute certainty, but, all factors considered, I would give a slight edge to monogen¢s huios (“Only Son“) as the original reading of verse 18. It is possible that monogen¢s theos (“Only God“) may have been introduced as an attempt to explain (ho) monogen¢s huios in context, much like the conflated reading ho monogen¢s huios theos (“God [who is] the Only Son”). However, one cannot be dogmatic about such things. Indeed, I suggest it is important to keep both readings in mind when you study this extraordinary passage. It is almost as if the declaration in verse 18 is too momentous and powerful to be contained by a single form of the text. The Gospel (and Prologue) of John expresses clearly that Jesus is both God and the Son (of God). Can these two truths ever really be separated from one another?

I would ask that you continue to study and meditate upon this passage, and at the same time, begin to consider the next verse—also from the first chapter of John—which we will be studying in this Series. It is the declaration by the Baptist in Jn 1:34, and, again, an important variant reading is involved:

  • “and I have seen and have given witness that this (man) is…”
    • “…the Son of God” (ho huios tou theou)
    • “…the Elect/Chosen (One) of God” (ho eklektos tou theou)

I recommend you continue reading carefully, from the Prologue all the way through to 1:34… and I will see you next Saturday.

Yeshua the Anointed: Supplemental note on the Son of Man Sayings

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There is nearly unanimous agreement among scholars that the expression “the Son of Man” ([o(] ui(o\$ [tou=] a)nqrw/pou) in the Gospels, derives from its use (originally in Aramaic) by Jesus himself. All but a handful of the 80+ occurrences of “Son of Man” are from Jesus’ own words in the Gospels. By contrast, the expression only appears four times elsewhere in the New Testament, and only once as a title for Jesus (Acts 7:55-56, which is a reflection of Gospel tradition [Lk 22:69 par]). It is equally rare in the earliest extra-canonical Christian writings, the so-called Apostolic Fathers (c. 90-160 A.D.)—Ignatius, Ephesians 20:2; Epistle of Barnabas 12:10. In both of these passages “son of man” is understood in something like its generic sense (“human being”) to emphasize the human nature of Jesus—Ignatius stresses Jesus’ dual-nature (“…the [son] of Man and son of God”), while ‘Barnabas’, on the other hand, stresses that Jesus was not simply a human being (“see again Jesus: not son of man, but [rather] son of God”). We find “Son of Man” a bit more frequently in subsequent writings of the early Church, but usually in the context of commenting on, or attempting to explain, the use of the expression in the Gospels (or in Daniel 7). The most noteworthy occurrences in the 2nd century, are in the apologetic works of Justin Martyr—Dialogue with Trypho §§31, 32, 76, 79, 100, 126; and the First Apology §51.

All of this to say that the expression is found so frequently in the sayings of Jesus, and then virtually disappears from early Christian tradition—this makes the authenticity of its use in the sayings secure. However, when it comes to the eschatological Son of Man sayings by Jesus, where he appears to identify himself as a divine/heavenly figure who will appear at the end-time Judgment, critical scholars tend to be a bit more cautious and skeptical. The authenticity of these sayings (as we have them in the Gospels) has been questioned, generally on the basis of two factors:

  1. They have been “Christianized” to varying degrees—that is to say, a number of the sayings have been tied in contextually to believers’ faith in, and confession of, Jesus (e.g. Luke 6:22; 9:26 [Mk 8:38]; 12:8). For critical scholars, this indicates that, at the very least, the sayings have been colored or modified in light of early Christian belief and practice.
  2. Jesus never specifically identifies himself as the “Son of Man”—this only occurs once in the Gospel tradition (in Matthew’s version of the first Passion prediction, Matt 16:21), and may be attributed to the author/narrator rather than Jesus. According to the view of a number of commentators, in the eschatological sayings, Jesus is referring to a separate divine/heavenly figure (“the Son of Man”, cf. Dan 7:13-14ff; 1 Enoch 37-71), and not to himself. In early Christian tradition, references to this figure were then interpreted as referring to Jesus and his end-time (second) coming, as we see in Matt 24:3.

With regard to the first point, the extent of the “Christianization” of these sayings certainly can be debated. If we consider the core sayings in the Synoptic tradition—Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62 and parallels—there is really very little evidence for this. The saying in Mark 8:34 has a more obvious “Christian” context, but, since the sayings in 8:34-9:1 have likely been appended together as part of the earliest Tradition, and need not have been uttered by Jesus in sequence on a single occasion, it is questionable whether one should equate it with the (original) context of v. 38. The same may be said for the narrative framework of chapter 13 (the Olivet or “Eschatological” Discourse), which is best understood as a collection of sayings, which may have been uttered by Jesus on different occasions, combined together on the basis of a common theme and subject—i.e. eschatological teaching and sayings by Jesus. Verses 9-13 are a prophecy of the persecution early believers will experience, and the “false Messiahs (or Christs)” in vv. 21-22 are connected with people claiming to be Christ (i.e. Jesus) in v. 6; however, only Matthew’s version of this discourse specifically connects the coming of the Son of Man (Mk 13:26 par) with the future/second coming of Jesus (Matt 24:3). In none of the Synoptics is the Son of Man saying itself modified or glossed, nor do we see any sign of this in Mark 14:62 par.

It is interesting to consider that Luke’s Gospel, apparently written for a wider Greco-Roman (Gentile) audience, and which occasionally translates or simplifies elements of the Gospel tradition into more conventional Greek language, never does this with the Son of Man sayings, even though the expression “the Son of Man” (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou), as Jesus uses it, would have sounded strange indeed to Greeks unfamiliar with the Semitic idiom. Luke has considerably more eschatological sayings than Mark—in addition to the three core Synoptic sayings (cf. above), there are those in Lk 12:40; 17:22, 24, 26, 30; 18:8; 21:36 (and cf. the parallels in Matt 24:27, 37, 39, 44). Not once, however, does the author narrate or explain the saying in such a way as to clarify that the coming of the Son of Man means the coming of Jesus himself. While early Christians may have assumed or understood this automatically, some in Luke’s intended audience likely would not have. That the Son of Man sayings were left ‘unexplained’ indicates that they were so deeply rooted and fixed in the Gospel tradition, the author simply could not alter them.

This brings us to the second point—that in these Son of Man sayings Jesus originally was not referring to himself, but a separate heavenly figure (“the Son of Man”). There are several problems with this view:

(a) There is little, if any, formal difference between the eschatological Son of Man sayings and those elsewhere in the Gospel tradition (i.e. Mark 2:10, 28 par; Luke 7:34; 9:58 par, etc), in which it is generally admitted that Jesus is referring to himself, perhaps using “son of man” idiomatically as a substitute for the pronoun “I”. Even in the context of the Passion, and the predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33 par) which critical scholars might regard as ex eventu prophecies produced by early Christians, there is little doubt that “the Son of Man” refers to Jesus himself. It is natural to assume that the eschatological sayings also are meant as a self-reference. If there was any intended distinction between the usage in these sayings, it has become completely confused in the Gospel tradition. In fact, there is some indication that Jesus’ use of the expression actually was confusing to some in his audience, if we accept the detail recorded in John 12:34.

(b) There is no clear evidence that the expectation of an end-time figure called “the Son of Man” was widespread or common at the time of Jesus; indeed, the situation is quite the opposite. As I indicated in Part 10, there is only one surviving document, likely contemporary with (or prior) to the time of Jesus, which describes a specific divine/heavenly being called “the Son of Man”—the so-called Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71). This “Son of Man”, also identified as “the Righteous One”, “the Elect/Chosen One” and also “the Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah), will serve as Judge over the nations at the end-time. This figure, like the “Son of Man” in Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62, is clearly inspired by, and derived from, Daniel 7; however, the Similitudes do not specifically emphasize his glorious appearance on earth at the end-time. There is little reason to think that Jesus was referring to common and popular image, though educated and devout Jews certainly would have recognized an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14. Turning again to John 12:34, we see that Jesus’ audience seems to understand “the Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah/Christ), presumably in terms of an end-time Davidic Ruler (cf. Parts 68), but they are noticeably less clear about the Son of Man (“…who is this ‘Son of Man’?”).

(c) If we combine the arguments of (a&b), along with the fact that there is little sign that any of the eschatological Son of Man sayings has been altered or glossed for the sake of clarity or as part of a Christological interpretation (cf. above), then there appears to be little reason to treat those sayings differently from Jesus’ use of the expression “the Son of Man” elsewhere. Even in the textual transmission, there is surprisingly little evidence for substantive variant readings involving the expression “Son of Man” (i.e., using a more familiar title “Lord”, “Christ”, “Son of God”, or even the pronoun “I”), one notable example being found in John 9:35 (“Son of Man” vs “Son of God”).

If, then, we accept the general authenticity of the Son of Man sayings by Jesus, and that they have been preserved with very little modification or alteration, it becomes necessary to step back and consider how the eschatological sayings fit within the overall use of the expression. I have already discussed this in prior notes and articles, but I will summarize the points here:

  • As a Hebrew/Aramaic idiom, the expression “son of man” simply refers to a human being or to the human condition. The poetic and formal usage in the Old Testament typically is related to the idea of human limitation (or weakness) and mortality, especially compared with the divine/heavenly nature of God and his Messengers (Angels).
  • Subsequently in Hebrew and Aramaic, this generic sense of the expression—i.e., a(ny) human being—merged into the specific use of the idiom as a self-reference, a substitute or circumlocution for the pronouns “I” or “you”. However, it is still debated whether, or to what extent, it was commonly used this way in the time of Jesus.
  • In many of the sayings, Jesus appears to use “son of man” as a self-reference, but in terms of his identity as a human being. Within the Synoptic tradition, see especially, Mark 2:10, 28 par; Luke 9:58 par.
  • This identification with human beings (and the human condition) also has a distinct soteriological emphasis in a number of sayings, both in the Synoptics and John—cf. Mark 10:45 par; Luke 19:10; John 3:13; 9:35.
  • He also identifies specifically with human weakness, suffering and death, expressed in the Gospel tradition in the context of his Passion (suffering/death) and subsequent resurrection—esp. the Passion predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34 par), also Mark 9:9, 12; 14:21, 41 par; Matt 12:40; 26:2; Lk 22:48; 24:7, and cf. in the Gospel of John (Jn 3:14; 6:27, 33; 12:23, 34; 13:31).
  • Finally, he identifies himself with the “one like a son of man” (i.e. resembling a human being) in Daniel 7:13-14, as a divine/heavenly figure who will appear as God’s representative at the end-time Judgment—Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62 par, etc. Jesus draws on tradition and imagery (from Daniel 7) similar to that found in the Similitudes of Enoch (probably contemporary with Jesus’ time). In the Gospel and early Christian tradition, this Son of Man reference blends together with the idea of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God in heaven (Mark 14:62 par; Acts 7:55-56 etc). This exaltation motif is expressed somewhat differently in the Gospel of John, as a return, stepping (back) up into heaven to be with the Father—Jn 3:13; 6:27-52; 12:23; 13:31.

 

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.

“Critical”

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.

“Traditional-Conservative”

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)

By | Biblical Criticism, Exegetical/Study Series | No Comments

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.