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”

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”

Is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus a Fable about the Afterlife?

Luke’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is remarkable for several reasons. It is the only Gospel parable in which a character is named. It seemingly has no parallel in the other Synoptics. It is often thought to be based on a pagan folktale. And it presents a view of the afterlife that is utterly unique in the Bible.

Figuring out the author’s intent with this parable has been a challenge, and many differing opinions have been offered. I’d like to look at some of the sources Luke may have drawn upon, and what message I think the parable is intended to convey. There are also some connections with the other Gospels that might get overlooked by most readers. Continue reading “Is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus a Fable about the Afterlife?”

Luke’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined

The nativity of Jesus is such a beloved tale, it’s hard to read it critically without feeling a twinge of guilt, as though I am betraying something sacred and magical in my desire to see where the story comes from and how it’s put together. And yet, it’s not the text itself I defy by scrutinizing the Bible, so much as the myth our culture has created in place of what the text actually says.

When I wrote about Matthew’s nativity story a year ago, I tried to emphasize that, despite its reverence for the Bible, Christianity shows remarkable disregard for the actual details as written. Whether we admit it or not, it is clear from our actions that we understand the Christmas story as a malleable, adaptable legend and not as a fixed historical event.

Purely by coincidence, the nearby preschool my two boys attend here in Japan is a Christian institution, and their annual Christmas recital always includes a nativity play, acted out by the oldest class. This year’s performance was a blend of the stories found in Matthew and Luke, with elements freely modified or omitted as the director saw fit. King Herod — played by my six-year-old, who wore a golden crown obviously modeled after the British crown jewels, Anglican cross included (what a wonderful anachronism!) — heard about the messiah’s birth before the magi ever arrived. No slaughter of innocents was shown, and the family of Jesus had no need to flee to Egypt. The angels sang, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Of course, the Bible tells no story resembling this or any other church nativity play I’ve ever seen. Matthew’s story of the star, the magi, and the flight to Egypt is entirely different from Luke’s tale, which I’m looking at in detail today. Once again, I am indebted to the writings of David Friedrich Strauss — one of the first Protestant theologians to read the Gospels critically — and the renowned Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown. Continue reading “Luke’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined”

Is John out of Order? The Strange Geography and Chronology of the Fourth Gospel

German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, in his famous and still widely cited commentary on John, wrote many decades ago:

The thesis has been represented, occasionally even in very early times but strongly from the beginning of this century, that the original order of the text [of John] has been disturbed, through an interchange of leaves or by some other means. …it must be presumed that the present order of our Gospel is not derived from the author. …It is not enough to reckon with a simple exchange of the pages of a loose codex, for the sections that appear to demand a change of position are of unequal length. The assumption lies closest to hand that the Gospel of John was edited from the author’s literary remains on the basis of separate manuscript pages, left without order. In any case, the present form of our Gospel is due to the work of a redactor. (pp. 11–12)

Bulfmann’s observations on the incongruities of the Gospel have been made and expanded on by many biblical scholars since then. Some agree that the Gospel seems to be out of sequence, as though an early manuscript were dropped and the pages put back in the wrong order. Others have proposed complicated source theories or stages of redaction, whether by the same author or an authorial community. Still others have simply ignored the problem altogether.

Regardless of which (if any) of these hypotheses is correct, the passages in John that have prompted this debate are worth having a look at. Continue reading “Is John out of Order? The Strange Geography and Chronology of the Fourth Gospel”

Did Luke Know and Use Matthew? The Parable of the Talents/Pounds as a Test Case

I recently wrote an article on the Synoptic Problem and how editorial fatigue — consistency errors made by one writer who is copying another — is a key type of evidence showing that both Matthew and Luke were based on Mark. If you don’t know what the Synoptic Problem is, you should go read that article before this one.

In addition to the material Matthew and Luke copied from Mark, we often find material shared in common between Matthew and Luke that is absent from Mark. This content is known as the Double Tradition, and it presents us with a puzzle. Regardless of its pre-Gospel origin (e.g. church teaching, oral tradition about Jesus, or other texts), it shows a direct literary relationship between Matthew and Luke, as indicated by identical wording and other close parallels.

Did Luke get this material from Matthew? Did Matthew get it from Luke? Both possibilities seem unlikely for a number of reasons; for one, Matthew and Luke differ drastically on key stories not found in Mark, like Jesus’ nativity and the resurrection appearances. If, for example, the author of Luke knew Matthew, why did he completely reject great story material like the adoration of the Magi and the flight to Egypt? Why provide a genealogy completely different from Matthew’s? And so on. Continue reading “Did Luke Know and Use Matthew? The Parable of the Talents/Pounds as a Test Case”

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”

What’s the Deal with Matthew’s Genealogy?

For most Christians who read the Bible casually or devotionally, Matthew’s genealogy — the very first chapter of the New Testament — is one of the dullest passages in all of Scripture. It was a tremendously important passage for the author and his audience, however; and for me, it is an incredibly fascinating window into the author’s methods and who he thought Jesus was. It also contains numerous puzzles — some more easily solved than others. What’s so interesting about this long list of begats? Read on and find out more than you probably ever wanted to know. Continue reading “What’s the Deal with Matthew’s Genealogy?”

Some Observations on High Priests in the Gospels and Acts

Jesus before Caiaphas

The high priest, the Sanhedrin, and the Roman administration play an important part of Jesus’ trial and execution in the Gospels. Jesus’ trial thus provides the somewhat rare opportunity for known figures from history to be mentioned. There are some oddities when it comes to the key role of the Jerusalem high priest, however. Let’s take a look at who is cast in this role in the four Gospels as well as Acts. Continue reading “Some Observations on High Priests in the Gospels and Acts”