These articles are designed to help the reader of the Bible to appreciate it more fully. For a general discussion on the nature of the Bible, see also the article, Understanding the Bible. This list is not intended to be comprehensive, nor is there a particular sequence. The selection of topics is based entirely on the author’s own particular areas of research into the biblical texts.
Are You Not Strong Enough?
When Jesus returns to the sleeping Peter, James and John in Gethsemane (Mark 14:37), he literally says, “Are you asleep? Are you not strong enough to watch for an hour?” There is considerable irony in this verse, as the disciples had turned accusingly to Jesus in the boat on the Sea of Galilee in the storm when he was comfortably asleep on the pillow in the stern and asked him, “Master, don’t you care?!” (4:38). Jesus’ reply was to chastise them for their lack of trust (pistis, usually translated as faith), and to show by calming the storm that everything was, indeed, under control. Now, in Gethsemane, Peter is asleep, and matters are not in their control at all. Within minutes, they will abandon Jesus in order to save their own skin. When their moment of testing comes, they will not be ready. They will not be strong enough.
Being a Friend of God
Friendship was highly valued in the Greco-Roman world. It was the ideal relationship between equals. For Epicurus, friendship was the basic pleasure, and the friendship found in Epicurean groups was a key factor in their popularity.
But the human being could also be a friend of God: “The sage is a friend of god” (Pseudo-Diogenes, Epistle 10). More than that, in Jewish thought, God could be a friend of the human being. In Exod 33:11, “Yahweh would talk to Moses face to face, as a man talks to his friend.” But it was only Moses who had this special positiion. The closest the ordinary person came to this notion of friendship was through seeking Wisdom: personified Wisdom was a friend of all who seek God (Wis 6:12–16; 7:26ff; 9:1–2; Prov 8:22–31).
Did Jesus’ Family Think Him Mad?
It has been said that Mark 3:21 may reflect a genuine memory of difficulties Jesus had with his family when, as a single Jewish man in his thirties, he left his family to go on the road to preach the Kingdom of God. Certainly, Mark 3:20–35 paint a very unflattering picture of Jesus’ family, particularly since it is the first mention of his mother in the Gospels. But is there something else going on in this passage?
Does Jesus Care?
On the Feast of St Mark (26 April), we remember the faith of this great evangelist. Mark’s community had been suffering severe persecution for some time, and many had died. Mark 13:12–13 describes the betrayal and hatred experienced by his community, most likely the church of Rome, and we know from Tacitus that they were subject to persecution from the year 64 under Nero. It is most likely that Mark’s Gospel was written after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in August, 70, and probably after the victory march through Rome by Vespasian and Titus in June, 71. This means that the Roman church had suffered for perhaps seven years.
How Did Jesus Redeem Us?
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
The question — How did Jesus redeem us? — has been the subject of much theological discussion and many different explanations since the early days of Christianity. Even in the New Testament, many different expressions are used to explain how Jesus’ death brought us salvation. Here we look at the understanding found in Mark’s Gospel, the oldest of the Gospels.
Israel Comes to Terms With God and With Itself
The previous article described how, through Israel’s experience of the exile in Babylon in the 6th century B.C., it reconsidered its understanding of God. This article looks at the sort of questions about God that Israel’s post-exilic texts sought to answer. There, we find that Israel’s perception of their relationship with God had been deeply affected by the trauma of the Exile, the threat to Israel’s continued existence, the loss of the Temple, the Davidic dynasty and the destruction of Jerusalem.
Israel Discovers Unconditional Love
One of the problems we have in understanding the Old Testament is that its various books are not in chronological sequence. Rather, they reflect story sequence, that is, beginning with stories of creation, then the patriarchs, and then Israel in the land. This means that some of the most primitive understandings of God are found in texts that appear quite late in our reading, if we start at the beginning. As we saw in our previous Scripture Article, Yahweh was seen as just “the God of Israel” who would protect them in the same way that the gods of the neighbouring nations would protect their own people. He was a warrior god, who acted like a storm god at times.
Jesus and the Dog
Readers are often puzzled by the incident in Mark 7:24–30 where the Syro-Phoenician woman comes to Jesus. ‘Gentle’ Jesus seemingly ruins his public image by calling her a dog, and rejecting her request to heal her daughter until she insists. Was Jesus just having a bad day?
We should look at our context first (as always). We are in the centre of what is often called “the Bread Section” of Mark’s Gospel. In this section, there are the two feeding miracles — of the five thousand in 6:30–44 and of the four thousand in 8:1–10.
Paul’s Appeal to the Experience of the Holy Spirit
Paul is well-known for writing on the true use and understanding of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians, and in stressing that there are different gifts of the Spirit distributed throughout the body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:12–30; Romans 12:4–8). But it is not usually recognised how often, throughout the letters that are attributed to him, Paul appeals to the experience of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer as proof of the reality of his gospel message.
In his first letter, 1 Thessalonians, he reminds the members of the first church he founded how the gospel came to them, not just in word, but “in power and in the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:5). His appeal is to their experience of God’s Spirit. This is what they must remember. As a Jew, Paul knows the importance of Israel remembering what God had done for them, commemorated in the Passover haggadah each year. “Remember” is the call of Deuteronomy (cf. Deut 6:4–9).
Receiving the Holy Spirit
We are so used to Luke’s account of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), that we miss the account of the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples in John’s Gospel, where it occurs, not fifty days after an Ascension (there is no Ascension in John), but on Easter Sunday night. It is a pity, too, that this unique account is rather lost in our liturgical reading of the First Sunday after Easter by making it part of 20:19–31, so that the whole focus becomes the story of Thomas. How many preachers speak about the Holy Spirit on this Sunday?
Recognising the Risen Jesus
We are all familiar with the Emmaeus story from Luke’s Gospel, in which the disciples recognised Jesus “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). For Luke’s community, the Eucharist was the special moment when Jesus would be recognised as being present among them.
For the second and third generation Christians in the 80s and 90s, both Luke and John dealt with the question how Christians could recognise the Risen Jesus as being with them. What is often not recognised is the several ways in which the author or authors of John’s Gospel addressed this question.
The Best Good News of All
There are no resurrection appearances in Mark’s Gospel. Instead, the Gospel concludes with a scene where Jesus is not present. Why might Mark have ended his Gospel without Jesus appearing in the final scene?
The most probable setting of the Markan community is the city of Rome, perhaps a year after the destruction of the Temple in 70. If so, the intended readers of this Gospel had suffered seven years of severe persecution during which, according to Tacitus, “a great multitude” of Christians have been put to death just for being followers of Jesus. Mark was dealing with a community that had experienced the seeming absence of Jesus during that time. His people were asking why Jesus had not come and saved them from their suffering. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (Mark 15:34) is really the prayer of those Roman Christians.
The Call of Peter in Luke’s Gospel: A Model for the Busy Businessperson?
The four evangelists present very different accounts of the call of the Peter. In Mark’s Gospel, Peter (called Simon in all the accounts) with Andrew, James and John inexplicably leave their family and livelihood to follow a man they had apparently never met. Mark surely meant the reader/hearer to be shocked by his brief call story — why would anyone follow this man Jesus, giving up everything as they did? What is special about this man? Mark was appealing to his persecuted community to radically give up everything to follow Jesus without hesitation
The Only Commandment of Jesus
From the beginning of chapter 13 of John’s Gospel, the evangelist has been turning to one of the biggest issues facing his community sixty years after Jesus’ death — the apparent absence of Jesus. Apparently, there is deep concern within the community that Jesus does not seem to be amongst them when they are being persecuted and killed by people from the local synagogues (cf. 16:1–4).
The Prologue in John’s Gospel: A Testimony to Members of the Family
“In the beginning … ” (John 1:1). A Jew picking up this text to read it in the first century AD could not fail to be reminded of the beginning of the Scriptures: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth … .” He would agree that “in the beginning was the word,” because Genesis 1 describes how God created all things merely by speaking — all things were made through his word. More than that, the Torah was seen to exist in the beginning, and “word” and “law” are often used interchangeably (cf. Ps 119).
The Revolutionary Hosea: What is True Knowledge of God?
The earliest biblical texts show an Israel whose god looked very similar to the gods of surrounding nations. Yahweh was seen to be a warrior: “Who is he, this king of glory? It is Yahweh, strong and valiant, Yahweh valiant in battle” (Ps 24:8), and he fights for Israel as every national god was expected to do.
He is also seen as a storm god: “So Samuel called upon Yahweh, and Yahweh sent thunder and rain that day” (1 Sam 12:18). In Jdgs 5:5, 21 — a very early text — Yahweh wins the battle by sending a storm. In Solomon’s prayer, he prays: “When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you … ” (2 Kings 8:35).
What Did Paul See?
Luke describes the conversion of Saul (Paul) in three places in Acts of the Apostles — in chapters 9, 22 and 26 — and in each case the story is told differently. Many commentators in the past have looked at the three stories and tried to ‘add them together’ to find out ‘what really happened.’ But this ruins the effect on the reader intended by Luke. Acts 22 is written as a speech of Paul intended for Jewish hearers; Acts 26 is written as a speech of Paul intended for gentile hearers. Acts 9 is very different, and we will pay close intention to the way Luke portrays the conversion of Saul as this tells us a lot about Luke’s themes in his double work of Luke–Acts.
What Renders the Hand of God Powerless?
In a previous article, it was mentioned that Mark 4:35–5:43 shows Jesus seemingly to have power over all things, as he successively controls the elements, demons, sickness, and even death. But when Jesus comes to his own home town in 6:1, we find him “unable to work any miracle there” (v.5) because “they would not accept him” (v.4). Jesus has power over all things except the will of the human being. There is a similar sadness in this account that we find in John 1:11: “He came to his own, and his own did not accept him.”
Why Did David Dance?
When the Deuteronomic writer(s) composed the Book of Deuteronomy and the series of books known as the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings), they were writing in a period (7th–6th centuries BC) when many, of not most, regarded the monarchy as a prime cause of Israel’s downfall — first the loss of the Northern Kingdom, and then the loss of Jerusalem, the Temple and the remainder of the land.
After the ‘evil’ king, Manasseh, had allowed the worship of other gods in Jerusalem, the Deuteronomic group set out to show where Israel had gone wrong. They wrote a history demonstrating that Israel had continually disobeyed Yahweh and worshiped other gods, and that it had, against Yahweh’s will, asked to have a king, like the other nations. They told how Israel had been warned through the prophet Samuel that having such a king would return Israel to slavery, and that only Yahweh should be their king (cf. 1 Samuel 8). They went on to show how Israel’s kings had consistently ignored the Law and the prophets, and had allowed the worship of other gods.