On the Plausibility and Purpose of Paul’s Sea Voyage in Acts 27

Like the climax of a novel, Paul’s sea voyage and subsequent shipwreck as a prisoner of the Roman centurion bring an exciting conclusion to Acts of the Apostles — a book that purports to tell a sweeping story of the church’s beginnings. To be sure, not a few Bible scholars past and present have regarded much of Acts as a fictionalized (or at least heavily embellished) account of the early church, and the final report of the Acts Seminar — a group of Bible scholars and historians that met regularly for ten years to share research on Acts — supports that conclusion.

The sea voyage and shipwreck story of Acts 27, however, has long impressed readers with its attention to geographic and nautical detail. Even leading Acts scholar Richard Pervo, who devotes two chapters specifically to historical problems in his book The Mystery of Acts, describes the sea voyage as “vivid and apparently accurate” (p. 137). That is not to say he regards it as a historical event, since he elsewhere categorizes it as a “miracle story” (p. 110), but rather, that no obvious inaccuracies stand out.

Leaving aside the issue of Acts’s overall historicity, I thought I would take a closer look at this particular story and see how plausible the shipwreck tale is. Despite the limitations of my meager nautical knowledge and the historical resources available, it’s been an interesting study. Furthermore, it has shown me (yet again) that historical concerns often lead us astray from what the text is actually trying to say. Continue reading “On the Plausibility and Purpose of Paul’s Sea Voyage in Acts 27”

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The Roots of the Eucharist, Christianity’s Oldest Ritual

Every Sunday, Christians around the world (and sometimes even in space) consume small amounts of bread and wine as part of an ancient ritual shared by nearly all denominations1, though the details and theological significance may vary. Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches call this ceremony the Eucharist, from the Greek eucharistia, meaning “thanksgiving”. To Catholic and Orthodox believers, the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ, and consuming them plays a direct role in the believer’s salvation. By contrast, evangelical Protestants (who are likely to use grape juice instead of wine) call the ritual “Communion” and see it as merely a symbolic remembrance of the crucifixion. Anglicans and traditional Protestants fall somewhere in between.

Even in the early years of Christianity, there was diversity in the ritual’s liturgy and symbolism. The traditional conception of the Eucharist as a rite taught by Jesus himself to the disciples, preserved in the New Testament, and transmitted faithfully from generation to generation runs into problems when the evidence is examined closely. In the past, scholarship naively assumed an over-simplified view of the ritual’s origins and the homogeneity of early Christian practices. (König 123) In the twenty-first century, however, the views of scholars have changed remarkably thanks in part to fruitful comparisons with the Greco-Roman practices of the early Christian era. Continue reading “The Roots of the Eucharist, Christianity’s Oldest Ritual”

Luke’s Surprising and Oft-Ignored Views on Marriage and Resurrection

A few weeks ago, Stewart Felker wrote an article about what he suggests may be “the true most embarrassing verses in the Bible” — quoting a remark famously made by C.S. Lewis regarding Mark 13:30 (“This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”). What Felker has in mind, though, is a statement by Jesus about marriage and the afterlife found in Luke. In fact, when I first saw him mention it in an online discussion, I almost didn’t believe it was actually in the Bible.

The remark occurs in a well-known Synoptic pericope. To understand it, we should look at Mark’s version first. The context, chapter 12, is a loosely-connected series of sermons and other opportunities for Jesus to dispense wisdom. In vv. 18–27, some Sadducees, “who say there is no resurrection,” pose a trick question to Jesus, perhaps in the hopes of discrediting him and the Pharisaic belief in a resurrection.

The scenario they pose is one in which a widow ends up marrying seven brothers in succession due to the Mosaic law on levirate marriage. Since polyandry is not allowed in Judaism, these Sadducees demand to know which of the brothers would be married to her in the resurrection (afterlife). Continue reading “Luke’s Surprising and Oft-Ignored Views on Marriage and Resurrection”

Did Mark Invent the Sea of Galilee?

Most of Mark’s Gospel prior to the passion narrative revolves around a body of water the author calls the Sea of Galilee. It is the geographical focal point where Jesus calls his disciples, preaches to the crowds, travels (by boat), and performs his miracles — including many that involve the sea itself. It is a dangerous body of water whose raging waves must be quelled by Jesus on one occasion to save his shipmates.

There is, in fact, no “sea” in the Galilee region of Palestine. There is a lake in the right location that matches the geographical description of Mark’s sea in many (thought not all) respects. But no ancient writer prior to Mark ever mentions a body of water called the Sea of Galilee, and some of the reasons Mark gives the sea such a prominent role are often overlooked. Continue reading “Did Mark Invent the Sea of Galilee?”

Jesus the Shapeshifter in Early Christian Tradition

What did Jesus look like? That’s a question that no book in the New Testament seems interested in answering. Growing up around illustrated Bibles and Sunday school flannelgraphs that depicted the Saviour as a tall, handsome, bearded Caucasian figure with wavy, chestnut locks, it never occurred to me that the Gospels were devoid of any physical description.

Let’s consider some texts about other characters from the ancient Greco-Roman world. Here is how the appearance of Aesop is described in Life of Aesop:

He was truly horrible to behold: worthless, pot-bellied, slant-headed, snub-nosed, hunchbacked, leather-skinned, club-footed, knock-kneed, short-armed, sleepy-eyed, bushy-lipped – in short, an absolute miscreant.

Though the actual existence of Aesop is dubious, character descriptions are an important part of a biographical text¹, and the appearance of Aesop helps convey his character as a “mad wise man”.

Diogenes Laertius describes Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, as follows in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers:

Zeno…had a wry neck, says Timotheus of Athens in his book On Lives. Moreover, Apollonius of Tyre says he was lean, fairly tall, and swarthy—hence some one called him an Egyptian vine-branch, according to Chrysippus in the first book of his Proverbs. He had thick legs; he was flabby and delicate. Hence Persaeus in his Convivial Reminiscences relates that he declined most invitations to dinner. They say he was fond of eating green figs and of basking in the sun.

Alexander the Great is described thusly in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander:

The statues that gave the best representation of Alexander’s person were those of Lysippus…, those peculiarities which many of his successors afterwards and his friends used to affect to imitate, the inclination of his head a little on one side towards his left shoulder, and his melting eye, having been expressed by this artist with great exactness. But Apelles, who drew him with thunderbolts in his hand, made his complexion browner and darker than it was naturally; for he was fair and of a light colour, passing into ruddiness in his face and upon his breast.

Perhaps the closest thing we get to a character description in the Gospels is Matthew’s introduction of John the Baptist:

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matt. 3:4)

However, there are certain Gospel passages related to Jesus’ appearance that fostered an interesting belief among early Christians: Jesus was a shapeshifter. Continue reading “Jesus the Shapeshifter in Early Christian Tradition”

Melchizedek: King, Priest, Time Lord

“The ring of the King,” said Ransom, “is on Arthur’s finger where he sits in the land of Abhalljin, beyond the seas of Lur in Perelandra. For Arthur did not die; but Our Lord took him to be in the body till the end, with Enoch and Elias and Moses and Melchisedec the King. Melchisedec is he in whose hall the steep-stoned ring sparkles on the forefinger of the Pendragon.” — C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

“He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe.” — Doctor Who, “The Family of Blood”

I still remember my astonishment many years ago, reading Hebrews for the first time and coming across this character named Melchizedek who was apparently an eternal and immortal being, without parents and without beginning or end. This was one of those places in the Bible where the line between religion and fantasy seemed to blur.

When I read Genesis 14 — one of only two places in the Old Testament where the immortal referent of Hebrews is mentioned — I get a sense of a character who doesn’t quite belong to the world around him; an enigmatic priest serving El Elyon, the god whom Abram equates with Yahweh, and who is also king of a city that seems to be Jerusalem but not quite. He always struck me as someone like the Tom Bombadil character of The Lord of the Rings, a powerful but reclusive wizard who disappears from the narrative once the main characters move on. More lately, he reminds me of Doctor Who, a character who seems human but whose influence extends across time and space.

Somehow, this obscure character insinuated himself right into the heart of primitive Christian theology — as well as several parallel trends in Jewish and Gnostic thought, as we shall soon see. Whether an eternal cosmic being or merely a folkloric character, Melchizedek is more important to the development of Jewish messianism and Christianity than many people may realize. Continue reading “Melchizedek: King, Priest, Time Lord”

Crime and Punishment in Sodom and Gomorrah

In many religious circles, Sodom and Gomorrah have become watchwords for the moral panic many people feel in connection with the perceived corruption and depravity of society. The metaphor is invoked particularly by those who oppose the increasing acceptance of homosexuality, and it is not hard to see why. The story of Sodom in Genesis 19 is a vivid tale of fire-and-brimstone destruction, and same-sex attraction is frequently thought to be the main crime for which its denizens are punished. Understandably, then, this biblical passage has become a target for Christians on both side of the debate who need the Bible to express either condemnation or silence on the matter. If the biblical story of Sodom is an infallible morality tale, then interpreting it correctly is of utmost importance. Continue reading “Crime and Punishment in Sodom and Gomorrah”

Princes of Darkness: The Devil’s Many Faces in Scripture and Tradition

Belief in Satan — the embodiment of sin and evil who exists in reality as a personal being — has been a mainstay of Christian doctrine and popular belief since the earliest days of the faith. As with most Christian theology, however, there is great diversity in the church’s teachings on the devil, both past and present. Most Christians assume that the qualities commonly attributed to Satan are derived from clear and straightforward readings of the Bible, but are they really? Continue reading “Princes of Darkness: The Devil’s Many Faces in Scripture and Tradition”

Matthew’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined

Another Christmas has come and gone, and it is a time of year when one Bible story stands out above all else—the nativity of Jesus. Despite the deep reverence Christians have for this story, many (perhaps most) are aware at some level that the ubiquitous scene with the shepherds, the three magi, the star and the stable full of animals is an idealized fairytale version. As a mythologized tradition, it exists in numerous cultural variations—those from Naples may include taverns and merchants, for example, while Catalan nativity scenes always include a character who is defecating (!), called the “Caganer”. The Bible itself tells two separate tales of Jesus’ birth (one in Matthew and one in Luke), and neither of them presents an account that resembles the modern nativity portrayal. Nor, for that matter, can the two accounts be merged into a single, consistent narrative without altering or omitting numerous critical details. Then again, few people care really look that closely at the biblical texts and their background. The crèche, though not faithful to any biblical story or historical reality, is a powerful vignette full of symbolic elements that combine to create a sense of mystery and awe. In many ways, it has superseded the Gospels as the canonical representation of Jesus’ birth in the minds of believers. Continue reading “Matthew’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined”

Luke’s Genealogy Compared with Matthew and the Old Testament

In an earlier article, I examined the genealogy that the Gospel of Matthew gives for Jesus and drew some conclusions about its sources and purpose. To summarize, Matthew’s genealogy is built on an artificial numerical scheme that divides Israel’s past from Abraham to Jesus into three periods spanning fourteen generations each. For the most part, it is based on the genealogies found in 1 Chronicles, and many contradictions with the Hebrew Old Testament can be explained by Matthew’s use of the Greek Septuagint (LXX) — particularly, a manuscript with variant readings that resemble Codex Alexandrinus. This genealogy makes Jesus out to be an individual of both royal and priestly descent, and it associates Jesus with some interesting women along the way.

The genealogy in the Gospel of Luke goes all the way back to Adam and is almost twice as long as Matthew’s, listing 77 generations. Luke’s view of Jesus, purpose for writing, and access to manuscripts were quite different, and the result is a pedigree that cannot be reconciled with Matthew’s ancestral list, despite many creative attempts at harmonization by theologians both ancient and modern. What can we deduce from a close look at Luke’s genealogy? Continue reading “Luke’s Genealogy Compared with Matthew and the Old Testament”