What is a Biblical Prophet?

And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”   (1 Kings 17:24)

On July 20 we Orthodox commemorate the Holy Prophet Elijah (Elias).

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“…the word prophet (a compound from the Greek word for “speaker”) does not mean in the first instance someone who predicts the future, but one who speaks out on behalf of God – not one who foretells, therefore, but one who tells-forth (which often also includes, of course, foretelling the future). The primary and defining characteristic of the biblical prophet, then, is to be sought in the divine vocation and mission of telling and speaking in the name and by the designated authority of Another.”  (Jaroslave Pelikan, Whose Bible Is It? p. 11)

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Prayer Before Reading Scripture

Illumine our hearts, O Lord and lover of all humanity, with the light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our understanding, so that we may comprehend the message of Your Gospel.  Instill in us also reverence for your blessed commandments, so that having conquered sinful desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, thinking and doing all things that are pleasing to You.

For You are the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto You we render glory, together with Your eternal Father and Your all holy, life giving Spirit.  Amen.

 

Interpreting the Scripture (I)

Previous: Hidden Meanings in the Text

In this blog series, we are exploring what it means that Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate (John 1) while simultaneously we also refer to the Bible, the written text as the Word of God.  Orthodoxy in its hymns certainly places an emphasis on Jesus being the Word of God incarnate.   The Word is a person rather than a book.  We understand that the Scriptures witness to Christ (John 5:39-40).  The Scriptures as the Word of God have many peculiar elements to them  (such as being subject to scribal error, see Textual Variations) that would certainly tell us that they can be considered the Word of God only in a particular way.  They can be translated into many languages with all the linguistic and cultural nuances that introduces to the text, and yet still be considered the same Word of God.  And as every English speaking person knows, the number of different translations into one language can be many and they can have so many variations in the translations as to make one wonder if the same original text can have so many different possible meanings.

Modern scholars point out many facts about the Scriptures’ composition and development some of which question the divine inspiration of the Scriptures.  These insights of modern scholarship however are often not new but were well known in the ancient Christian world.  St. Irenaeus of Lyons (martyred in 202AD) for example is aware that the each of the four Gospels were written for differing audiences and for different purposes.  He writes:

“The Gospel according to Matthew was written to the Jews. For they laid particular stress upon the fact that Christ [should be] of the seed of David. Matthew also, who had a still greater desire [to establish this point], took particular pains to afford them convincing proof that Christ is of the seed of David; and therefore he commences with [an account of] His genealogy.”   (Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 9161-67)

St Peter of Damaskos  (12th Century) is keenly aware that some Christians in his day doubted that the Letter to the Hebrews was written by St. Paul and believed rather that it was written pseudonymously. Peter rejects the claim but the point here is these things were disputed long before modern scholarship came along.

“Again, some say in their lack of experience that the Epistle to the Hebrews was not written by St Paul, or that St Dionysios the Areopagite did not write one of the treatises ascribed to him. But if a man will pay attention to these same works, he will discover the truth. If the matter pertains to nature, the saints gain their knowledge of it from spiritual insight, that is, from the spiritual knowledge of nature and from the contemplation of created beings that is attained through the intellect’s purity; and so they expound God’s purpose in these things with complete accuracy. Searching the Scriptures, as St John Chrysostom says, like gold-miners who seek out the finest veins. In this way they ensure that ‘not the smallest letter or most insignificant accent is lost’, as the Lord put it (Matt. 5:18).”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 31860-75)

As St. Peter notes, St. John Chrysostom was interested in every tiny mark or unusual twist in the texts of the Scriptures.  Everything was significant since the writings were considered to be God’s Word and not merely human endeavors.  Though indeed the written texts belong to human effort and a spiritual need, the authors were inspired by God to write.  So, Scripture is always a work of synergy between God and humans – not only between those who wrote them and God but also between the reader of the texts and God.  So St. Justin Martyr admits there may appear contradictions in the scriptural texts when we read them literally, but this is dealt with by the way we read/interpret the text.  The problems is in our understanding of differing texts, not in what God is saying to us.

St. Justin the Martyr
St. Justin the Martyr

“I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another. I shall admit rather that I do not understand what is recorded, and shall strive to persuade those who imagine that the Scriptures are contradictory to be of the same opinion [about Scripture] as myself. “  (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Loc. 867-69)

St. Augustine who wrote voluminous comments on the Scriptures was aware that the texts of the Scriptures were troublesome to interpret.  He believes the Scriptures to be true and grants that any one text can have different interpretations.  After all, Scripture is God’s Word, and so one would expect that at times we humans might realize God’s Word is much deeper than we can comprehend.

“What more liberal and more fruitful provision could God have made in regard to the sacred Scriptures than that the same words might be understood in several senses, all of which are sanctioned by the concurring testimony of other passages equally divine?”  (St. Augustine, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5578-80)

“But the truths which those words contain appear to different inquirers in a different light, and of all the meanings that they can bear, which of us can lay his finger upon one and say that it is what Moses had in mind and what he meant us to understand by his words?”  (St. Augustine,  A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5820-22)

“For all the differences between them, there is truth in each of these opinions. May this truth give birth to harmony, and may the Lord our God have pity on us so that we may apply the law legitimately, that is, to the end prescribed in the commandment, which is love undefiled.”  (St. Augustine,  A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5829-31)

“When so many meanings, all of them acceptable as true, can be extracted from the words that Moses wrote, do you not see how foolish it is to make a bold assertion that one in particular is the one he had in mind? Do you not see how foolish it is to enter into mischievous arguments which are an offense against that very love for the sake of which he wrote every one of the words that we are trying to explain? ”  (St. Augustine,  A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5824-27)

St. Augustine
St. Augustine

Augustine understands the Scriptures are rich and deep and a divine treasury, so if we approach them imagining them to have one and only one meaning, we are imposing on them human limits and concerns, but God’s Word is not limited by human imagination or intelligence.  It is possible that we will never know exactly what the original author of the Scriptures meant as we are separated by many centuries and by differing languages and cultures.  That still doesn’t mean God can’t or won’t speak to us through the text.  There is inspiration in the reading as well as in the writing of Scripture.

“Prophetic diction delights in mingling figurative and real language, and thus in some sort veiling the sense. (20:16) No doubt, though this book [Revelation] is called the Apocalypse [“the unveiling”], there are in it many obscure passages to exercise the mind of the reader, and there are few passages so plain that they assist us in the interpretation of the others, even though we take pains; and this difficulty is increased by the repetition of the same things, in forms so different, that the things referred to seem to be different, although in fact they are only differently stated. ”  (St. Augustine,  A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5904-8)

St. Augustine admits that in Scripture at times God intentionally veils His purpose and meaning in figurative language.  God wants us to seek out His will, and gives us opportunity to work with Him by using language and images in the Scriptures that we must work with God to understand. Sometimes God uses several incompatible metaphors to give us the same message.  We have to realize that the multiple different images don’t mean there are many differing messages but only that God is emphasizing one message using several different images.

St. John of Damascus commenting on Genesis 1 notes that earlier church fathers had interpreted Genesis 1 differently from each other and had come to various beliefs about the nature of the heavens and the earth.  He accepts all of these interpretations as possible and perhaps with the limits of the science of his day as probable.  He is acknowledging that we do read the Scriptures with and through the lens of our own knowledge, and that it is possible to come to different conclusions from the text of Scriptures based upon the assumptions we begin with.  But these differences are not about the doctrine of God, but only about an understanding of the earth or all of creation itself.  Thus, following his reasoning, we understand how it is that now modern science in studying the created order has come to some conclusions different than any of the earlier saints might have thought.  But this is OK .   We are using the scientific knowledge that God has given our generation to study and understand the created world.  This doesn’t in anyway compromise the nature of God.  God is the Creator, no matter how we understand science or the creation.  The ancients for example thought all created things were made up of one of 4 elements, or that human body was governed by the humors.  We now think about atoms and sub-atomic particles as making up all things and we know the relationship between energy and matter which the ancients didn’t know.  So, St. John tells us:

“But further, God called the firmament also heaven, which He commanded to be in the midst of the waters, setting it to divide the waters that are above the firmament from the waters that are below the firmament. And its nature, according to the divine Basilius, who is versed in the mysteries of divine Scripture, is delicate as smoke. Others, however, hold that it is watery in nature, since it is set in the midst of the waters: others say it is composed of the four elements: and lastly, others speak of it as a filth body, distinct from the four elements.

Further, some have thought that the heaven encircles the universe and has the form of a sphere, and that everywhere it is the highest point, and that the centre of the space enclosed by it is the lowest part: and, further, that those bodies that are light and airy are allotted by the Creator the upper region: while those that are heavy and tend to descend occupy the lower region, which is the middle. The element, then, that is lightest and most inclined to soar upwards is fire, and hence they hold that its position is immediately after the heaven, and they call it ether, and after it comes the lower air. But earth and water, which are heavier and have more of a downward tendency, are suspended in the centre. Therefore, taking them in the reverse order, we have in the lowest situation earth and water: but water is lighter than earth, and hence is more easily set in motion: above these on all hands, like a covering; is the circle of air, and all round the air is the circle of ether, and outside air is the circle of the heaven.    (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc Loc. 767-780)

The thinking of the Church Fathers is that the Scriptures are not so concerned with what we today would call science.  The Scriptures can be read literally, but that is not their main purpose.  They are opening heaven to us.  They are revealing the divine life to us, and we need to see the Scriptures exactly in that light and having that purpose.   The Scriptures are not revealing the scientific nature of creation but rather are revealing the Creator of the universe to us.  So Symeon Metaphrastes writing in the Makarian Homilies makes this commentary on a text of the Pentateuch:

Moses indicates figuratively that the soul should not be divided in will between good and evil, but should pursue the good alone; and that it must cultivate not the dual fruits of virtue and vice but those of virtue only. For he says: ‘Do not yoke together on your threshing floor animals of a different species, such as ox and ass; but yoke together animals of the same species and so thresh your corn’ (cf. Deut. 22:10). This is to say, do not let virtue and vice work together on the threshing floor of your heart, but let virtue alone work there. Again he says: ‘Do not weave flax into a woolen garment, or wool into a linen garment’ (cf. Deut. 22:11); and: ‘Do not cultivate two kinds of fruit together on the same patch of your land’ (cf. Deut. 22:9). Similarly, you are not to mate an animal of one species with an animal of another species, but to mate like with like. All this is a concealed way of saying that you must not cultivate virtue and vice together in yourself, but you must devote yourself singlemindedly to producing the fruits of virtue; and you must not share your soul with two spirits – the Spirit of God and the spirit of the world – but you must give it solely to the Spirit of God and must reap only the fruits of the Spirit. It is for this reason that the psalmist writes: ‘I have prospered in all Thy commandments; I hate every false way’ (Ps. 119:128).”  (THE PHILOKALIA,  Kindle Loc. 32528-45)

The reading Symeon uses  and his reasoning for reading the text in this particular way is exactly that of St. Paul:

For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop.  (1 Corinthians 9:9-10)

The Fathers often saw the Scriptures as refuting the pagan legends of the creation of the world.

Creation dragons
Creation dragons

But their interpretation of the Scriptures also shows us that they were not intending to read the Bible to refute modern science. Modern scientific ideas were not on their radar screens at all.  Their refutation of pagan ideas of creation was to bring all people to the knowledge of the one true Creator of the universe.  We are to read the Scriptures for the same reason today.

Next:  Interpreting the Scripture (II)

Textual Variations

Previous Blog in the series:  Scriptures: The Written Word of God

As we consider the relationship between Jesus, the Word of God, and the Holy Scriptures, we recognize that Jesus is said to be both perfect God and perfect human.  The written Scriptures are also said to be inerrant, and yet it is well known that in the long history of the transmission of the Scriptures scribal errors and variations did enter into the text.  Modern scholars often point out these variations, but they were also well known in the ancient Patristic world.

Modern scholars sometimes try to recreate what they think might be the best or oldest version of the manuscripts making up the books of the Bible.  However, to be real, we can never recreate some perfect biblical manuscript, because no such one manuscript containing all the biblical texts ever existed.  There were always a number of manuscripts and variations in the texts existed from the earliest days of the transmission of texts.   Some non-believers use these variations to show that a literal reading of the Bible can’t be done.  This especially worries those who hold to a completely literalist reading of the text.  Atheists often take advantage of this to try to lead people to lose faith since the texts aren’t perfect.   But in Christian traditions which are not slaves to a literal reading of the text, the variations in the texts can create new insights into the reading of Scripture as well as help us appreciate the depths of God’s written revelation.  Since it is God’s revelation which is true and inerrant, errors in the written text used to communicate the revelation are not seen as invalidating the unchanging truth of God.  Even though the ancients valued and interpreted every tiny dot and letter in the manuscripts, they were amazingly calm about variations they knew existed.  They had a greater faith in God than in the inerrancy of the manuscripts.

We can look at 3 instances of early church Fathers considering variations in the Scriptural texts which were well known in their day.  First, St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD),  writing in the 2nd Century notes that there is a known variation in text of Revelation 13:18 in which some report the number 666 but other texts say the number is 616.  St Irenaeus says:

Such, then, being the state of the case, and this number being found in all the most approved and ancient copies [of the Apocalypse], and those men who saw John face to face bearing their testimony [to it]; while reason also leads us to conclude that the number of the name of the beast, [if reckoned] according to the Greek mode of calculation by the [value of] the letters contained in it, will amount to six hundred and sixty and six; that is, the number of tens shall be equal to that of the hundreds, and the number of hundreds equal to that of the units (for that number which [expresses] the digit six being adhered to throughout, indicates the recapitulations of that apostasy, taken in its full extent, which occurred at the beginning, during the intermediate periods, and which shall take place at the end),–I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decads they will have it that there is but one. [I am inclined to think that this occurred through the fault of the copyists, as is wont to happen, since numbers also are expressed by letters; so that the Greek letter which expresses the number sixty was easily expanded into the letter Iota of the Greeks.] Others then received this reading without examination; some in their simplicity, and upon their own responsibility, making use of this number expressing one decad; while some, in their inexperience, have ventured to seek out a name which should contain the erroneous and spurious number. Now, as regards those who have done this in simplicity, and without evil intent, we are at liberty to assume that pardon will be granted them by God.     (Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 8557-69)

Irenaeus believes the number 666 is the correct reading and he assumes the number 616 occurs in some manuscripts due to a scribal error which he notes frequently happens.  Amazingly he doesn’t panic over the variation and even thinks God will pardon those who did this accidentally.  For Irenaeus the text does not become meaningless by this error, nor does it mean the text is no longer Scripture.  He understands the letters, numbers, words and sentences of the Scriptures are the human element through which God’s truth and revelation are preserved and brought through the generations (Tradition!).  The letters are subject to human error, but the meaning and purpose of God’s revelation is not altered by these human mistakes.

The second instance is found in the writings of St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) who is commenting on Matthew 5:22.   Cassian shows an awareness that there are variations in manuscripts, and like any modern biblical scholar he also thinks some manuscripts are “better”, more reliable in preserving the original message,  than others.  Cassian believes that the less reliable manuscripts have added “without cause” to the original text, so the changed manuscript reads “who is angry without cause.”  Cassian thinks this addition was made to soften Christ’s teachings.  Cassian believes we are not to be angry with our Christian brothers and sisters.   He thinks some found this so difficult to live by, that they changed the manuscripts to say only if the anger is without cause is it wrong, but if we are provoked by the other than the anger is justified.  Cassian thinks Christ taught the much harder truth that anger is sin no matter what the cause of the anger.  Anger against a fellow Christian can’t be justified in this thinking.  So Cassian writes:

The Lord Himself teaches us to put aside all anger when He says: ‘Whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of judgment’ (Matt. 5:22). This is the text of the best manuscripts; for it is clear from the purpose of Scripture in this context that the words ‘without a cause’ were added later. The Lord’s intention is that we should remove the root of anger, its spark, so to speak, in whatever way we can, and not keep even a single pretext for anger in our hearts. Otherwise we will be stirred to anger initially for what appears to be a good reason and then find that our incensive power is totally out of control. The final cure for this sickness is to realize that we must not become angry for any reason whatsoever, whether just or unjust. When the demon of anger has darkened our mind, we are left with neither the light of discrimination, nor the assurance of true judgment, nor the guidance of righteousness, and our soul cannot become the temple of the Holy Spirit.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle  Loc. 2171-86)

Cassian thinks the original teaching of Christ is really shocking and intentionally so.  Can humans living in community really exist without getting angry with one another?  Can we really learn to live so at peace with other Christians, that we ignore their faults, foibles and sins?  Cassian thinks some tried to make the teaching of Christ more manageable and doable by softening it and making it less demanding.  He thinks we need to stick with Christ’s words and intentions rather than with our ideas about what is possible.

The 3rd instance of textual variation comes up on the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430AD) who was a contemporary of St. John Cassian.  Augustine is well aware that the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures sometimes differed significantly from the known Hebrew and Aramaic texts.  Yet both were considered inspired, sacred Scriptures.   He considers what sense we are to make of these variations and how we might know which is the correct reading of the Scriptures.  Augustine offers this explanation:

“The Septuagint translators, being themselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in their translation, seem to have altered some passages [in the Hebrew text] with the view of directing the reader’s attention more particularly to the investigation of the spiritual sense. ”  (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 55780-82)

Augustine believes the Jewish Septuagint translators in rendering the Hebrew texts into Greek were in fact as inspired as the original authors of the texts.  He believes the same Holy Spirit was at work in the authors as in the translators.  This same inspiration led the translators to try to draw out of the texts the more spiritual rather than literal meaning of the words.  So they were not merely translating, they were interpreting/clarifying the texts under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  God was continuing to act in and through the Scriptures which are His living Word, not dead letters carved in stone (2 Corinthians 3:6-7).  Augustine continues:

“Since we find nothing else in the Scriptures than what the Spirit of God has spoken through men, if anything is in the Hebrew copies [of the Old Testament] and is not in the version of the Seventy [the Septuagint], the Spirit of God did not choose to say it through them [the seventy translators], but only through the prophets. But whatever is in the Septuagint and not in the Hebrew copies, the same Spirit chose rather to say through the latter, thus showing that both were prophets. . . . As the one Spirit of peace was in the former when they spoke true and concordant words, so the selfsame one Spirit has appeared in the latter, when, without mutual conference, they still interpreted everything as if they had only one mouth.”  (St. Augustine,  A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5886-91)

Augustine argues that the Jewish translators were in fact inspired prophets of God.   God chose to render some things only in and through the Hebrew texts and this is what the original prophets proclaimed.  But God who continues to act through history also inspired those charged with preserving and translating the texts.  So God added or changed the message when the Septuagint translators were at work because both the times had changed and so had the people who needed to hear the message anew.  Thus even though God’s eternal Word is rendered in print, the written word does not limit or fix the possible meanings of the text nor its power in new generations of believers.

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This idea will be the same truth that is understood in the incarnation of Word of God in Christ.  Though Jesus is fully human, this does not in any way limit or contradict that He is fully God as well.  The incarnate Jesus does not change or limit the eternal Word of God.  God Himself chooses to place the limits of space and time on His divine powers in the incarnation.  But this does not shackle divinity.  It is a great mystery which is made obvious when the inspired and sacred Scriptures are translated into a new language.  God continues to direct His revelation to the world in the living and active Word, which is not limited by the physical means used to convey the spiritual message.   The power of God’s living Word was never limited to or by the stones on which it was carved.

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”   (Hebrews 4:12)

“You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever.” That word is the good news which was preached to you.”    (1 Peter 1:23-25)

Next:  Hidden Meanings in the Text

Jesus Christ, The Word of God, and Scriptures

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.  (John 1:1-4, 14)

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The Evangelist John, known in the Orthodox Church as John the Theologian, proclaimed Jesus to be the incarnate Word of God.  John is very clear WHO the Word of God is: Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God to whom the Scriptures bore witness.

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me…”  (John 5:39)

Thus the written revelation of God, the Scriptures bear witness to the Word of God.  As Jesus teaches, Moses inspired by God to write the Torah, was actually writing about the Word of God who was to become incarnate.

“If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.” (John 5:46)

 “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.“  (Luke 24:27)

Not only Moses but all the prophets and all the authors of Scripture were inspired to write about the coming Messiah, the Word of God.

“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…” (Luke 24:44-45)

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In this blog series I intend to explore the relationship between our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, and the Scriptures, the written record of God’s revelation.  As in all my blog series, this is not a scholarly researched paper.  I am simply drawing upon quotes that I tagged from books I read over the past 30 years and am now assembling together into this blog series.  The quotes are  ideas I came across  in my reading over several decades which stood out in my mind when I read the books.  I am now bringing the quotes together to explore the relationship between the Word of God and the Scriptures.  Obviously if Jesus is literally the Word of God, then the Scriptures are the Word of God in some other way.  They are the written record of God’s revelation, but Jesus is the full revelation of God.  The Scriptures bear witness to Him.  It is of Jesus that all the Scriptures speak.   In this blog series we will look at various aspects of how the Scriptures are related to the Word of God.

Even when we think about the Word of God as being a written text, which we call the Bible, we have to realize the Bible is a collection of books written over hundreds of years by different authors.  Some of the books show signs that there were several different authors/editors involved in bringing together the texts of a book.  The Church still considers the texts inspired – whether one author or several had a hand in writing the book, or whether a book was edited by several different people, or even if we don’t know who the author(s) of a book are, we still consider the Scriptures to be inspired by God.  Absolute certainty about the authorship of a text, or total knowledge of the history of a book of the Bible, does not determine its inspiration.   Even when the books of the bible show several different versions of the same story, sometimes placed side by side within one book of the Bible, the Church accepts the received texts and all its variations as being inspired.  The Church in history accepted as inspired the Septuagint translation into Greek of the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic texts, as well as the original texts from which they were translated.

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The first thing I will mention about our Bible, and the books accepted by the Church as being part of our Scriptures, is that not only was the Bible written over many centuries, but the bringing together of all the texts and deciding which texts exactly belong to the canonical Scriptures also took centuries.  We see in the historical documents clear evidence that inspired saints, the Fathers of the Church did have at times slightly different ideas about which books constituted the official scriptures of the Church.  Additionally, there is a great deal of literature which compares and contrasts even the differences in the official texts of the Bible in the various Christian traditions (Latin, Greek, Syriac, Ethiopian, Coptic, etc) .  Here I will only mention a few quotes that gives us a sense some of the differences in the Church Fathers through the centuries about what is officially in the bible.  In the 2nd Century we find one attempt at establishing what books belong in the Bible (the fact that this has to be established shows us that there was not exact agreement on what books officially belong in the canonical Bible).

Melito  (d. ca 180ad) visited the Holy Land with a view to establishing the list of the canonical books of the Old Testament. According to Eusebius (EH 4.26) (d. 339AD), his list does not contain the book of Esther, which incidentally is also missing from the biblical remains of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran.”   (Geza Vermes,  Christian Beginnings, Kindle Loc. 3424-26)

Melitio’s Bible agrees with the Qumran community’s “canon”.  That community was a dissident group of Jews outside of mainstream Judaism in Jerusalem.

A 4th Century Document, The Apostolic Constitutions (written ca 375AD), says this about the Canon:   “Let the following books be esteemed venerable and holy by you, both of the clergy and laity. Of the Old Covenant: the five books of Moses— Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; one of Joshua the son of Nun, one of the Judges, one of Ruth, four of the Kings, two of the Chronicles, two of Ezra, one of Esther, one of Judith, three of the Maccabees, one of Job, one hundred and fifty psalms; three books of Solomon— Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs; sixteen prophets. And besides these, take care that your young persons learn the Wisdom of the very learned Sirach. But our sacred books, that is, those of the New Covenant, are these: the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the fourteen Epistles of Paul; two Epistles of Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude; two Epistles of Clement; and the Constitutions dedicated to you the bishops by me Clement, in eight books; which it is not fit to publish before all, because of the mysteries contained in them; and the Acts of us the Apostles.”  (The Apostolic Constitutions, Kindle Loc. 4894-4900)

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That 4th century canon of Scripture has many more books than officially ended up in the Bible of today.  It gives us a sense that there was not one canon accepted by all Christians in the 4th Century.  In the 8th Century, St. John of Damascus (d. 749) wrote a book that many consider authoritative in the Orthodox world for delineating doctrine.   Note in his comments especially what he considers to be the canonical books of the New Testament.  He is writing 400 years after many think the Christian canon had been closed.  St. John says:

 …  The New Testament contains four gospels, that according to Matthew, that according to Mark, that according to Luke, that according to John: the Acts of the Holy Apostles by Luke the Evangelist: seven catholic epistles, viz. one of James, two of Peter, three of John, one of Jude: fourteen letters of the Apostle Paul: the Revelation of John the Evangelist: the Canons of the holy apostles, by Clement.”  ( Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc.3180-3221)

St. John includes in the Bible as he knows it the letters of Clement but also those canons of the Holy Apostles mentioned from the 4th Century.  He includes as Scripture even more than the 4th Century Apostolic Constitution did.

Finally, in the 12th Century St Peter of Damaskos says this of the Canon of Scripture which he accepted:

 “These books include first of all the Old and the New Testaments, that is, the Pentateuch, the Psalter, the Four Books of Kings, the Six Books of Wisdom, the Prophets, the Chronicles, the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Gospels and the commentaries on all these…”  (St. Peter of Damaskos – 12th Century, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 25654-56)

OSB

St. Peter seems almost to have an open canon of Scripture for he includes all of the commentaries (supposedly the Patristic ones) on the Scriptures.  The issue of Canon had to do with what writings people believe bore witness to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God.  The Scriptures are those writing which bear witness to Christ, and so in different centuries they had differing ideas about what bore authentic witness to the Word of God.  All of these lists would have the common theme that the Scriptures – whatever books are included in the Bible – bear witness to the truth and help us recognize Jesus Christ as Lord.

Next:  Scriptures: The Written Word of God

The Scriptures Bear Witness to the Word of God

In the blog series which began with the blog The Scriptures Bear Witness to the Word of God  we considered how the authors of the New Testament read and interpreted the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament).  That blog series is now available as on document at The Scriptures Bear Witness to the Word of God (PDF).

You can find links to all my blog series which have been converted into PDFs at  Blog Series PDFs.

 

The Word Interprets the Scriptures

This is the third blog in this series which is looking at passages from the New Testament which help shape the way we read and interpret not only the Old Testament but all of our Scriptures. The first blog is The Scriptures Bear Witness to the Word of God  and the previous blog is Applying the Scriptures to the Word of God.

Moses receiving the Law

As we have seen in the previous blogs Jesus Christ recognizes the authority of the Jewish Scriptures for revealing God’s plan of salvation.  He claims all of the Scriptures as being a prophecy about the Messiah, Himself.  Thus Christ is revealing the purpose and the meaning of the Law, the Psalms and the prophets.   This becomes the very core of disputation with the other Jewish teachers of His day.

The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for thy house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.   (John 2:13-22)

And we see in the above text that once again, even His disciples did not immediately understand Christ’s actions and words any more than His opponents did.  Only later, after the resurrection, do His disciples begin to comprehend that the Scriptures bear witness to Christ.

What is clear in the Gospels is that Christ’s relationship with other rabbis is at times contentious.  Jesus makes it plain that he believes the problem with the faith of some of his interlocutors is precisely in their misunderstanding and misinterpreting the Scriptures.   For example in disputing with the Sadducees, Jesus makes it clear that they lack comprehension of God’s message in the Jewish sacred texts.  The Sadducees at one point are trying to show how logically absurd a notion of the resurrection is and tell the story of a woman who has had several husbands and they mockingly want to know if there is a resurrection to which one would she be married in this afterlife?

But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching.   (Matthew 22:27-33)

Worth noting in the debate is that both Jesus and his opponents accept the authoritative role of the Scriptures in governing how to live their life on earth.  For the Sadducees the Torah is binding on Jews and even death does not alter the eternal nature of the Law’s demands.  It is as if the Torah has a Karmic nature by which even God must abide.    Jesus clearly sees God as Lord even over Torah:  God is not bound by Torah, but Torah serves God’s will and plan. Just as the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27), so too the Torah serves God and is subservient to God’s will rather than God being bound by Torah. Jesus tells the Sadducees to pay attention to the details of the Scriptural text.

The argument Jesus has with the Sadducees is in how they read (interpret, understand, hear) the Scriptures.  The problem is not with the Torah itself but with how it is being understood and (mis-)used.   By reducing God’s Torah to mostly being regulations and ritualism, the Sadducees had emptied the Scriptures of their hope, their scope, their meaning, their revelation and their power.  Jesus says the Scriptures are about the resurrection and the future life: this is exactly what is missing in the understanding of the Sadducees.  The Torah is about the future and about the Messiah.   The purpose of the Scriptures is not to make us constantly look back into history but is to orient our lives toward the future eschaton, the Kingdom of God.

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet.   (Matthew 21:42-46)

Jesus takes Psalm 118:22-23 and applies it to Himself.  He, the Messiah, is the cornerstone to understanding the Scripture.  The entire interpretation of the prophecies and promises of God rests on the Messiah.  Because the other Jewish rabbis don’t understand this, they misinterpret the purpose of Torah and God’s promises.

St. Peter in his First Epistle makes use of the same ideas and passages which Christ uses to describe the fellowship of the disciples:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.” To you therefore who believe, he is precious, but for those who do not believe, “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner,” and “A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall”; for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.    (1 Peter 2:4-9)

Not only is it necessary to have Christ to understand and properly interpret the Scriptures, the Scriptures point to Christ: Christ is the cornerstone to which the Psalm refers.  We need Christ to understand the Scriptures not only to teach us the correct reading of the Scriptures but because He fulfills them.  Christ reveals the very purpose of the Jewish Scriptures by His very being.

Additionally, Christ’s fulfilling of the Scriptures says something about who He is: the Messiah is also the Lord.   Jesus performed various signs and wonders which His opponents could not refute, but they did reject His interpretation of the events.

The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken), do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?  (John 10:33-36)

Old Testament Forefathers of Christ

Jesus uses the Torah given to the Jews as pointing to Himself.  The Scriptures bear witness to the Word of God made flesh.  The signs, miracles and wonders which Christ did also bear witness to His being able to do acts of God.  Thus both the historical documents of the Jews, their Scriptures, and the very deeds of Christ, bear witness to the divine power in Christ.  They reveal who Jesus is.

“It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’”  (John 6:45)

Jesus is the God incarnate who teaches us.  Isaiah’s prophecy that we would be taught by God (Isaiah 54:13) is fulfilled in Christ.

But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 31:33)

God Himself transfigures and transforms not just our hearts but humanity itself in the incarnation and in the resurrection of Christ.

Next:  The Scriptures Written for Us

The Scriptures Bear Witness to the Word of God

“For I say to you that this which is written must still be accomplished in Me: ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”   (Luke 22:37)

Christ Himself in the Gospels states that the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) find their fulfillment in Him.  He offers an interpretive principle for reading the Old Testament: the prophecies will find their fulfillment in Christ.  In order to understand the Old Testament prophecies, we have to read them Christologically  or Christocentrically.  We will only understand them in Christ.  And as we shall see, Christ saw Moses as writing prophetically.  Even the book of Genesis is meant more as prophecy than history.

This blog series will look at a few of the claims found in the New Testament about interpreting the Jewish scriptures.  The goal will be to gain an understanding of the how the New Testament authors made use of the Old Testament and how they interpreted them.  If we reflect on how the New Testament uses the Old and interprets it, we can see that some of the current debates among Christians about how to understand the Scriptures can take on a new perspective.  For instead of debating how literally to interpret the Genesis creation narratives, we can come to see that the real issue for the early Christians was to read them Christologically.  The Jewish scriptures are claimed to be about Christ and so only in Christ can we come to understand them

For example, in Luke 4:16-21, Jesus Christ in the synagogue reads the text from Isaiah 61, and then proceeds to appropriate the text to Himself.  The Prophet Isaiah says God’s spirit is “upon me” but Jesus becomes the speaker and claims that He Himself is the fulfillment of these words.

“So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.  And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,

Because He has anointed Me

To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.’

Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”

Christ is laying claim to these Scriptures in a very unique way – not just that He fulfills them, but He is the speaker of them.  Christ is the “Me” of the prophecy, speaking the words hundreds of years earlier and now fulfilling them.  In the Orthodox Church, this interpretive principle is essential to how we read any of the texts of the Jewish Scriptures.  We are not reading the Old Testament to learn history, or science, we are reading them to help us see Christ at work since the beginning of the world in the world.  Jesus challenges his Jewish contemporaries to rethink what their Scriptures do.  Christ says to them:

“And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen; and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe him whom he has sent. You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from men. But I know that you have not the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive. How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; it is Moses who accuses you, on whom you set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”  (John 5:37-47)

According to Christ, “the Scriptures” – the Jewish Tanakh – bear witness to Him personally.  If people want to quote the Old Testament, Jesus says they need to understand those scriptures are leading the reader to Christ.  Jesus says quite plainly that Moses wrote about Him (Jesus).  This is an incredible claim, but Jesus claims to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies and so says the Scriptures need to be read as leading to Him.  Moses in writing Genesis and Exodus wasn’t so much writing history as he was writing a prophecy about the Messiah.  The Genesis creation story is not written as science to understand the material creation, but is written as prophecy about the coming of the Messiah.  The significance of Genesis is not the factual science it presents about the creation of the world, or the history of the first humans, but what it has to say about the Messiah.

We encounter a very similar message at the end of the Gospel according to St. Luke in which Jesus helps two disciples on the road to Emmaus to understand the Jewish Scriptures and how they are about the Messiah – Christ Jesus.

And Jesus said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)

Christ begins again with Moses the Prophet and then goes through all the prophets all of the Jewish texts concerning himself.  He is interpreting the entire Old Testament to His disciples to help them understand what the Old Testament says about the Messiah.  A little while later, Jesus speaks to the entire group of disciples:

“These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44-46)

The theme is the same, that the Old Testament foretold what was going to happen to the Messiah.  Christ specifically mentions the writings of Moses – the Torah – as containing these prophecies.   According to our Lord Jesus, the Jewish Scriptures were written to testify to the Messiah and should be read in that way.

The puzzlement is that while Jesus teaches that the Scriptures are clear about the suffering and resurrection  of the Messiah and that repentance and forgiveness should be proclaimed in His Name, it is harder to find direct quotes in the Old Testament that clearly and unambiguously make these claims.  The New Testament authors were quite convinced that the prophecies were unambiguous but the story of Christianity shows the Jews themselves were not so easily convinced.  There is the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophecy but then it is surprising what use the New Testament makes or doesn’t make of some of these passages.   Christ’s teachings are far more based in His reading of the Scriptures and he does on several occasions challenge his listeners about how they read (meaning how they interpreted)  the Scriptures.  Christ Himself becomes the key to unlocking the treasure hidden in the Scriptures.

Jesus’ unique claim to having the authority to explicate the Jewish Scriptures and the prophecies is based in his claims and that of His disciples concerning His relationship to God the Father.   It is because of who He is – the incarnate God, the God-man, the Word of God become flesh – that He has authority to interpret the Scriptures.  In John 6:45, Jesus proclaims:

It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.

The implication is that God is teaching us in and through Jesus Christ, for Jesus is in fact God in the flesh, the incarnate God who has come to save the world which He made.

Next:  Applying the Scriptures to the Word of God

Scriptures: Garments for the Word of God

MaximosConfessorSt. Maximos the Confessor (d. 662AD) is one of the better known theologians of the Eastern Church.  His writings, though completely profound, are not easy reading.  His writing style is completely theological with heavy reliance on Eastern Christian symbolic thinking, apophatic theology and spiritual exegesis.  It requires a fair amount of background study to understand.

I want however to take a look at a few comments of his found in THE PHILOKALIA dealing with the nature of Scripture, the Word of God.  We do not here have to go into the depths of the meaning he implies when he speaks about the Logos (the Word) of God.  What I want to draw attention to more is what St. Maximos presents as the relationship between the Logos/Word of God and the scriptures as they are not identical nor coterminous.

For Maximos the actual letters and words of scriptures are not the Word of God, but rather the they are things in which God inscripts His Word so that we can actually encounter the Logos/Word in a manner understandable to us.  The Logos as God by nature is beyond our understanding, yet because of His love for us He finds the ways for us to encounter and understand Him.    The alphabet/letters and words of scripture are thus symbols to help us see and encounter the Word.  Take your time and contemplate what St. Maximos is saying in the quote below.

“So long as we only see the Logos of God as embodied multifariously in symbols in the letter of Holy Scripture, we have not yet achieved spiritual insight into the incorporeal, simple, single and unique Father as He exists in the incorporeal, simple, single and unique Son, according to the saying, ‘He who has seen Me has seen the Father . . . and I am in the Father and the Father in Me’ (John 14:9-10). We need much knowledge so that, having first penetrated the veils of the sayings which cover the Logos, we may with a naked intellect see – in so far as men can – the pure Logos, as He exists in Himself, clearly showing us the Father in Himself.”   (Kindle Loc. 15419-15426)

The scripture text (the letters and words) are “the veils of the sayings which cover the Logos”.  We have to penetrate these veils, get beyond the written script in order to find our way to God who has clothed Himself in this language so that we can come to an understanding of God Himself.  It is always God we are trying to know to the full extent He makes possible for us.  We are not just trying to understand the scriptures, but the Logos who is both concealed in and revealed by the biblical text.  St. Maximos continues:

“Hence a person who seeks God with true devotion should not be dominated by the literal text, lest he unwittingly receives not God but things appertaining to God; that is, lest he feel a dangerous affection for the words of Scripture instead of for the Logos. For the Logos eludes the intellect which supposes that it has grasped the incorporeal Logos by means of His outer garments, like the Egyptian woman who seized hold of Joseph’s garments instead of Joseph himself (cf. Gen. 39:7-13), or like the ancients who were content merely with the beauty of visible things and mistakenly worshipped the creation instead of the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:25).”  (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15427-32)

OSBThe Word of God is not to be confused with the scriptures which are only “His outer garments.”   The Word of God is Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity.  The written text of scriptures are in other words things about God, but not God Himself. The text is very valuable, and unfortunately we can be so taken with the literal text that we never get beyond it to come to God.  We accept the gift but never bother to know the Giver.  [And when we read the footnotes in our bibles and rely on them rather than on the scriptures themselves to understand the text we are reading, we both move ourselves a further step away from the Logos/Word of God and make understanding the text as the goal rather than as the way to come to God’s Word!]

Take that imagery of a gift received:  Let us say we are given a gift and it is beautifully wrapped in expensive, gold foil wrapping paper with a handcrafted ribbon tied around it.  We may carefully unwrap the ribbon and paper so as not to damage them and to preserve them, but still they are not the gift, but a beautiful presentation of the gift.  Then we encounter a box which must be open and only then in the box do we find the gift.  All the externals however much attention has been put into crafting them, are still the presentation of the gift.  And the gift itself, however valuable is still not the giver, though the gift may perfectly express the giver’s relationship to us and tell us a great deal about the giver.  Maximos sees the scriptural text in a similar way:  the scriptures themselves are the beautiful wrapping, but the Logos/Word of God is the actual gift.  Again, carefully read his words below.

“It is by means of the more lofty conceptual images that the inner principle of Holy Scripture can be stripped gradually of the complex garment of words with which it is physically draped. Then to the visionary intellect – the intellect which through the total abandonment of its natural activities is able to attain a glimpse of the simplicity that in some measure discloses this principle – it reveals itself as though in the sound of a delicate breeze.”   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15433-42)

St Maximos uses the imagery not of a gift being unwrapped but rather of God’s Logos/Word being draped in complex garments, perhaps like we might imagine a king in all of his imperial regalia wearing.  The garments though beautiful conceal a mystery.  We are endeavoring to get beyond the draped garments to encounter the mystery.  We might call to mind the Divine Liturgy’s Great Entrance with the chalice draped with its vestment covering.   The chalice cover conceals what is in the chalice – the wine, not yet consecrated, but already capable of containing the mystery, and so it is concealed from our eyes.

For Maximos it is the words (the scriptural text) which are complex, but the Logos is clear and simple.  When we get beyond the text and encounter God we realize the simple beauty and love which is God.  He says it so poetically:  “it reveals itself as though in the sound of a delicate breeze.”   The sound of a delicate breeze – not a roaring wind, but that breeze of which we are ever so faintly aware.

St. Maximos continues in his heavy yet precise theological manner:

“When our intellect has shaken off its many opinions about created things, then the inner principle of truth appears clearly to it, providing it with a foundation of real knowledge and removing its former preconceptions as though removing scales from the eyes, as happened in the case of St Paul (cf. Acts 9:18). For an understanding of Scripture that does not go beyond the literal meaning, and a view of the sensible world that relies exclusively on sense-perception, are indeed scales, blinding the soul’s visionary faculty and preventing access to the pure Logos of truth.”   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15451-56)

The text, the alphabet and the words of scripture are all created things – used by God to reveal Himself, but still are things of this earth.  We have to shake them off in order to come to that inner principle of truth.  The physical text prove themselves as symbols to be scales covering our eyes which have to be removed for us to see spiritually what is before us. We have to get through the symbols and beyond them to come to the reality they represent.   One might say in Genesis 3 when Adam hides himself from God, it is because he can no longer tolerate that encounter with God and he is afraid and wants sensible/worldly things put between himself and God.  Adam hides himself by a tree and with leaves to cover his nakedness.  He is doing the opposite of what St. Maximos describes as the needed process to strip away those physical things which separate us from God.  Ultimately in the Torah, God still wishing to reveal Himself to fallen humanity, uses the commandments and the Torah itself as the words, letters and symbols for us to encounter Him.   It is Christ who comes to remove all of the veils with which the Word/Logos had been covered, so that once again we can encounter God the Giver of every good and perfect gift.

Light and Darkness: Experiencing God

Sometimes when we focus so carefully on each detail of a Gospel story, especially to glean every literal detail from it, we can lose sight of a bigger picture that is also present in the Gospel.  It is a matter of not being able to see the forest because of the trees.

For example in the Gospel of Mark there is a theme of the “secret messiah” – Jesus does not want people to proclaim who He is (see for example Mark 1:25 and 1:44).  And yet at every turn in the Gospel, Mark is presenting to us the answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?”  (See for example Mark 1:24,  2:7, 4:41).   In fact, Mark 8:27-29  in which Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say I am?”, seems to be a crucial point to which the Gospel narrative has been moving all along.

Who is Jesus that he can heal the sick, cast out demons, feed the masses, calm the storm, and speak with the wisdom of God?  These are questions that are being asked throughout the Gospel, yet Mark tells us from the very first verse who Jesus is: the Messiah, the Son of God.   Mark doesn’t keep the secret from the readers – it is only the people in the Gospel narrative, the ones living with Christ, who are having a difficult time figuring out who Jesus is.  [Note that within his Gospel Mark sees all of this misunderstanding as in fact fulfilling Old Testament prophecies.  In Mark 4:12  Jesus warns about those who see yet don’t perceive…]

Mark’s Gospel is in fact the evidence for his thesis that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God.  Yet Mark as storyteller presents through his narrative the slow revelation of who Jesus is.  Mark’s method of presenting the Gospel in this way makes for an interesting weaving between storytelling and theology.

Mark has told us the readers who Jesus is and continues to prove his point through the stories he tells.  Yet the characters in the stories often are not able to understand the fullness of the truth that Mark is making so obvious to us his readers.  We the readers of (or listeners to) the Gospel have an advantage that the original disciples did not!  The “secret” is really something the characters in the story are experiencing, but we the readers of Mark’s Gospel are not suffering this same disadvantage.

The disciples themselves are confused and don’t fully understand the Messiah, though Peter does confess Jesus as one point, but then so did some demons.   We who are not able to be there to witness Christ personally, however, have great advantage over those who were there – Mark is helping us to see, perceive, hear and understand who Jesus is.

I would also like to suggest that if we stepped back even further from the Gospel of Mark and considered the entirety of the Scriptures, we would recognize the question about identity playing itself out in Moses life, when he encounters the burning bush from which God speaks.  Moses wants to know who the Lord is – what is His Name?   Then when Moses goes to Egypt, Pharoah too wants to know who Moses is and who is this God he represents because Pharoah who is considered a god, has never heard of this “new” God.

The question “Who are you?” is central to the Exodus story, and Pharoah and his army are in darkness because they refuse to accept the answer Moses offers and proves through the plagues/miracles he performs.   When we read Mark’s Gospel, we are reminded to think back to the Exodus to another time in which the miracles of God were witnessed, yet not understood.  God is working out His salvation in Jesus Christ, will we see light or darkness in Christ’s activities?  It depends upon whom we think Jesus is.

Prophet Moses

But it is not only God’s enemies who don’t really understand who the Lord is.  In Deuteronomy 29:1-9, it is the Israelites themselves who Moses claims don’t have the eyes to see or the mind to understand the basic truth about God though they have witnessed His miracles through the Passover/Exodus events.   This is the same charge that the prophet Ezekiel brings against the house of Israel (Ezekiel 12:1-2).   These are words and charges that Jesus brings against the people of Israel in his own day, and even against His own disciples (Mark 8:16-21, see also John 12:40).

Basically, the Scriptures present to us that everyone sees the same reality, but not everyone understands what they see.   In Exodus, there was a cloud between Israel and the Egyptians.  They are both looking at the same event, and yet for one, the Jews, it is a guiding light while to the other, the Egyptians, it is darkness.  This idea of encountering the same reality from God yet seeing it so differently is described well in the Wisdom of Solomon commenting on the Exodus experience:

For the whole world was illumined with bright light and embraced unhindered works, while over those men alone heavy night was spread, an image of darkness that was about to receive them; but they were heavier than darkness to themselves. Light Shines on Israel.  But for Your holy ones there was a very great light. Their enemies heard their voice but did not see their form; and they considered them blessed because they had also not suffered, for Your holy ones did not harm those Who previously wronged them. So they were thankful and begged for grace for being at variance with them.  Therefore You provided a flaming pillar of fire as a guide for their unknown journey, and a harmless sun for their glorious exile.  For their enemies deserved to be deprived of light and imprisoned in darkness, those who imprisoned Your children, through whom the incorruptible light of the law Was to be given to the world.   (Wisdom of Solomon 17:19-18:4, OSB)

Mark gives us an advantage that those who actually witnessed the life of Christ didn’t have.  They were often not thinking about the Messiah when they saw Jesus, especially if He didn’t fit their preconceptions about the Messiah.  It is the old adage that miracles will not help the non-believer come to faith.  You have to believe in God to witness a miracle.  Miracles are for believers, not the unbelievers.    Our task as Christians is to help people believe so that they too can see Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.

Certainly the Gospel writers suggest to us that actually being present with Christ at the time He walked on earth was not a total advantage in recognizing Jesus as Messiah.  We actually have advantages that the original disciples did not – we know the Gospel story, where it is headed, what will happen, we know 2000 years later that people in fact did believe in Christ and have tried to follow Him.  We know of His resurrection and glorification.  We glorify Him ourselves.