The Orthodox Faith – The Bible – The New Testament (3e)I

St. John’s Gospel is the last Gospel to be written, towards the end of the 1st century. It was written to bring out the deeper theological meaning of Jesus’ words and deeds. It is the result of many years of thinking and preaching. The fourth Gospel has the clearest statement of Christ’s divinity, that is: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (Jn 1:1) 

This section tells about the Word of God and tells us that Jesus Christ is the Word of God and so is God. John 20:26-28 is the clearest confession of Christ’s divinity in the New Testament.

Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Because of the theological profundity of this Gospel, St. John is called “The Theologian”, one of the only saints with this title. The other two are St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Simeon the New Theologian.

St. John is given this title because of the theological depths of his Gospel. For example, the Prologue in chapter 1 of the Gospel says this:

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. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (Jn 1:1-5)

Here, speaking of Jesus Christ, he calls him “the Word”. God’s word in the Old Testament was very important. For example, in Psalm 33 it says: By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.: (Ps 33:6) In other words, God created thorough His Word. Or in Psalm 119:49-50: 

“Remember thy word to thy servant, in which thou hast made me hope. his is my comfort in my affliction that thy promise gives me life.”

In general in the Old Testament the Word of God is almost a kind of mediator between God and man.

On the other hand, the concept of “word” is very important. The English word “word” is the translation of the Greek word Logos. Logos can simply mean “word” in the common meaning, but in Greek philosophy it is more than that. “Logos” can mean reason, order, principle and many other things.  In Greek thought the word is also seen as a  kind of mediator between God and man. St. John, by bringing the Hebrew and Greek meaning of Logos together has created a profound unity between Greek philosophical concepts and Biblical revelation. He shows these two meanings come together in Christ who is “Logos” in the Greek and the Hebrew sense. He is giving a profound basis for further theology.

One thing that differentiates the Fourth Gospel from the other three is that in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Christ speaks in short, pithy sayings such as “love your neighbor”, “turn the other cheek” and so on. He also speaks in parables such as the “Good Samaritan” and “the Prodigal Son”. 

But we see very little of this in St. John’s Gospel. In this Gospel Christ delivers long theological speeches. Because of this some critics say that St. John’s Gospel is not historically accurate. However, there are some things to consider. In the first three (synoptic) Gospels, Christ is preaching for the most part, in Galilee. Galilee was ethnically mixed with Jews, Greeks and others living together. The overall level of education was somewhat lower in Galilee. Christ frequently spoke to simple, uneducated people. For this reason, Christ did not give long, theological discourses, but in simple language, capable of being understood by the uneducated but with profound meaning for all. Much of St. John’s Gospel is set in Judea, often in Jerusalem. Judea was more solidly Jewish with many highly educated Jewish leaders. Also, in much of the Fourth Gospel Christ is giving directions to the apostles who were able to understand Jesus in a more sophisticated way. 

But there is something else to take into consideration. By the time St. John wrote his Gospel he had spent close to sixty years meditating on Christ’s words and deeds, preaching these words and deeds before various audiences. And so Christ’s words became intermixed with St. John’s words. Sometimes we don’t know where Christ’s words end and St. John’s words begin. This should not surprise us. For example, priests preach about the Gospel frequently. They quote Christ’s words and sometimes paraphrase or summarize Christ’s words in various contexts. Hopefully priests are not contradicting or ignoring Christ’s words, but rather preaching in various situations. 

There is yet one other thing we have to take into account. St. John may not literally put pen to paper in the writing of this Gospel. It is very possible that St. John’s words were written by one or many of his disciples. In many icons of St. John, we see him speaking and his disciple Prochorus writing things down. Modern scholars propose that there was a school of St. John’s disciples for putting his words on paper. 

We are temped to think that many of Christ’s words were distorted through this process. But, we ae thinking in a modern manner. Scholars have shown that in our modern situations, with words available in print or through electronic media, our ability to memorize things has slowed down. However, in pre-literate cultures where much transmission of knowledge was verbal, memory as more fully developed. Studies have shown that story tellers in non-literate cultures can memorize and repeat very long stories, histories, plays and so on. Fut5hermore, in Judaism in the early centuries, disciples of a rabbi were required to memorize and accurately repeat the rabbi’s teachings. Jesus’ disciples, although they did not have much formal education, probably cold accurately repeat long narratives of Christ’s words and deeds.

Finally, for Orthodox we do not need to be overly concerned about detailed questions about authority or dating of the Bible. The Bible is the book of the Church, which guarantees the truth of the Bible. Details may vary, but the Bible is God’s word for humanity.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Bible – The New Testament (3d)

St. Luke was the only non-Jew among the Gospel writers. He was an educated man, a doctor, who wrote very good Greek. Because St. Luke was a doctor, some scholars think that his vocabulary appeared to use several medical terms, although many disagree. He was also a companion of St. Paul on some of his preaching tours. St. Luke was also the author of the Book of Acts, which describes the history of the early church from Christ’s Ascension to St. Paul’s journey to Rome.

At the opening of his Gospel, St. Luke writes that he collected information from nay people who had known Jesus. His Gospel is dedicated to “Theophilus”. No one knows who Theophilus was. It was a Greek name and so some say St. Luke wrote his Gospel and Book of Acts for a non-Jewish Christian. However, in Greek ‘Theophilus’ means ‘lover of God’ so St. Luke may have used this name to indicate that his Gospel was written for all Christians, Jews and Gentiles alike.

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theoph’ilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed. (Lk 1:1-4)

So he really makes the effort to learn as much about Jesus as he could. His Gospel provides a lot of information about the birth of St. John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.  Because St. Luke gives so much information about the births of St. John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, St. Luke probably knew the Mother of God who gave him the details. In addition, the long genealogical list of ancestors by St. Matthew and St. Luke differs in several details so St. Matthew’s genealogy is from St. Joseph and St. Luke’s from the Theotokos. In any case, both genealogies show Jesus descent from King David. This is important because the Old Testament tells us that the Messiah was to be a descendant of King David. The fact that St. Luke’s genealogy is from Mary’s point of view shows that St. Luke was acquainted with the Mother of God. 

St. Luke is reputed to have painted the first icon of the Mother of God. It would be difficult to prove this from history; it is said the “Vladimir” icon of the Theotokos was painted by St. Luke. 

Also, at the end of his Gospel St. Luke related the following story:

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emma’us, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cle’opas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Lk 13-18)

People believe this because although the name Cleopas is mentioned, the name of the other is not mentioned so this may be St. Luke referring to himself. As mentioned above, St. Luke was a companion of St. Paul. In fact, several sections of the Book of Acts are simply taken from his travel diary. Several parts of the Book of Acts give the details of their sailing to Rome. For example:

“… embarking in a ship of Adramyt’tium, which was about to sail to the ports along the coast of Asia, we put to sea, accompanied by Aristar’chus, a Macedo’nian from Thessaloni’ca. The next day we put in at Sidon; and Julius treated Paul kindly, and gave him leave to go to his friends and be cared for. And putting to sea from there we sailed under the lee of Cyprus, because the winds were against us. And when we had sailed across the sea which is off Cili’cia and Pamphyl’ia, we came to Myra in Ly’cia. There the centurion found a ship of Alexandria sailing for Italy, and put us on board. We sailed slowly for a number of days, and arrived with difficulty off Cni’dus, and as the wind did not allow us to go on, we sailed under the lee of Crete off Salmo’ne. Coasting along it with difficulty, we came to a place called Fair Havens, near which was the city of Lase’a.” (Acts 27:2-8)

Early in the 20th century an English sailor followed St. Luke’s directions and decided that the details are quite accurate and a modern sailor could follow them.

Generally, we can say that St. Matthew’s Gospel was directed towards Jews. St. Luke’s Gospel was directed towards non-Jews. This Gospel has a universalistic quality.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Bible – The New Testament (3c)

The Gospel according to St. Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels. Traditionally, it was believed that St. Matthew wrote first and St. Mark shortened his Gospel, but many scholars today think that St. Mark wrote first. Scholars will continue to study this issue, but such questions do not affect the value of the Gospel.

Traditionally, St. Mark is believed to be St. Peter’s interpreter. St. Peter was a Galilean fisherman and probably he had little or no education, so he would not have had the opportunity to study Greek or Latin. At this time the Jews spoke Aramaic. However, St. Peter was from Galilee. Galilee was more diverse than Judea so there were many non-Jews and these people would have spoken Greek or Latin. People tend to think that people in the Roman Empire spoke Latin. Of course, there were many, many Latin speakers. However, the Roman Empire was quite ethnically diverse. Therefore, most people across the Empire spoke Greek. This was true even inside Rome. The point is this – St. Peter probably spoke at least some Greek or Latin, because of course, as a fisherman he would have to had to speak to non-Jewish customers. However, St. Peter was probably not fluent in Greek or Latin and so St. Mark acted as his interpreter when St. Peter had difficulty expressing himself in Greek or Latin. Because of this, St. Mark knew St. Peter’s preaching very well, and when he came to write his Gospel, he based it on St. Peter’s preaching. Some of the Fathers thought that this Gospel as written in Rome to strengthen the Christian community there when they were being persecuted by Emperor Nero in 64AD. Other Fathers taught that it was written about the year 70, when the Jewish war was being fought. The destruction of Jerusalem during this war made many Christians think that it signaled the end of the world. In either case, St. Mark wrote this Gospel to support the Roman Christians during these horrible events.

Another characteristic in St. Mark’s Gospel is what is called by scholars as the “Messianic Secret”. This theory claims that St. Mark did not say directly that Jesus was the Messiah. Of course, Jesus’ teaching and miracles showed that he was the Messiah. Jesus did not openly claim to be the Messiah, and asked disciples to avoid mentioning this. This was because the popular view of the Messiah was that of a political or even military leader who would end Roman occupation of the Holy Land and establish a Jewish kingdom. Jesus Christ was not this kind of Messiah. It even took a while for the disciples to understand this. It was only after the crucifixion and resurrection that the disciples fully realized what kind of Messiah Jesus was and that He was “true God of true God”, as the Creed says.

It is traditionally thought that the Last Supper took place in the house of St. Mark’s mother. Also, St. Mark is thought to be the young man who fled after Jesus’ arose from the dead.

And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body; and they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked. (Mk 14:51-52)

St. Mark’s Gospel is written ‘on the run’ so to speak. St. Mark did not write long, elegant sentences. For example, rather than write in long, complete sentences he will say things many times as if he is quoting St. Peter’s preaching style, which didn’t use literary elegance. Also, he frequently uses the word “immediately”, “at once”, indicating preaching on the run.

As we can see from the Acts of the Apostles, St. (John) Mark accompanied St. Paul and Barnabas on the missionary journey. However, for some reason chose to leave St. Paul and Barnabas mid-journey:

“Now Paul and his company set sail from Paphos, and came to Perga in Pamphyl’ia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem.” (Acts 13:13)

This angered St. Paul so much that he did not let St. Mark rejoin them.

“And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphyl’ia, and had not gone with them to the work.” (Acts 15:37-38)

But St. Paul and St. Mark eventually reconciled. We can see this from the final greeting at the end of St. Paul’s letter to Philemon.

“Ep’aphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristar’chus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.” (Phil 1:23-24)

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Bible – The New Testament (3b)

The first of the synoptic Gospels (see the previous article) is that according to St. Matthew. St. Matthew was a tax collector whose conversion is described in Matthew 9:9-13.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

We have to remember that tax collectors were hated because they were people who worked with the Roman authorities to collect tax money from the local people. The Romans permitted tax collectors to extort as much money as they could for themselves.

Historically, it has been believed that this Gospel was written in Aramaic or Hebrew and then translated into Greek. However, scholars say that the Greek Gospel we have is not a translation from the Aramaic or Hebrew. For example, Papias, who wrote in the 2nd century stated that St. Matthew wrote a collection of Christ’s words in Aramaic which became the basis of the first Gospel.

St. Matthew is usually considered the most “Jewish” of all the Gospels. It was written to convince Jewish Christian and non-Christian Jews that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. For example, this Gospel begins with Christ’s genealogy. It shows that Jesus is a descendant of Abraham and King David. This is important because the Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would be a descendant of Abraham and David. Incidentally, although St. Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father, an adopted son is considered his father’s legal descendant.

One of the characteristics of this Gospel is that it shows that a word or a deed of Jesus Christ’s was a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. For example, Matthew 1:22 shows that the circumstances of Christ’s birth fulfilled Isaiah’s’ prophecy.

“All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,..”

Similarly, Matthew 8:14-17 shows that Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law fulfilled this prediction of the Prophet Isaiah.

“…when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and served him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick.  This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Bible – The New Testament (3)

There are four Gospels in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Our English word Gospel comes from the ancient Anglo-Saxon work “God-spel’, which literally means “Good News”. It is a translation from the Greek word “Evangelion” which means Good News.

It is tempting to see the Gospels as a short biography of Jesus. After all, they tell about His birth, most of His adult life, including His death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. However, the Gospels are not biographies in the modern sense. Biographies talks about the person’s childhood. In the Gospels, except for Christ’s birth and his finding in the temple, we are told nothing of his boyhood and teenage years. We know Jesus had an education because he could read the Bible in Hebrew in the Synagogue, which does require quite a bit of knowledge. Beyond that, the Gospels don’t say much else about His early life. A modern biography would tell us how that person spent his time. Of course, the Gospels tell us about Christ’s preaching, miracles and encounters with various people. A modern biography would go into much more detail. For example, what did Jesus eat, how did He spend his time when He wasn’t preaching or teaching? But the Gospels tell us nothing of this.

This is because the Gospels don’t pretend to be ‘objective’ about Christ’s life. They were written by men who were aflame with their love of Jesus Christ and their desire to bring Christ’s message to the world. That is why this is ‘Good News’; actually, the best news that a suffering humanity could hear, is the news that sin and death have been overcome. As St. John wrote in his Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

The first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, are called the “synoptic” Gospels. Synoptic means that if you put these three Gospels next to each other in parallel columns you can immediately see similarities in the order of events in Christ’s words, his miracles and so on. It is clear that there is a relationship between them and scholars debate how they are related. However, these scholarly questions do not take away from the “Good News” of the Gospel.

St. John’s Gospel, the last of the four, is rather independent of the first three. Christ’s words and miracles are described rather differently than the first three. All four Gospels were written in the second half of the 1st century. But St. John’s Gospel was written much later, perhaps in the mid-to-late 90s of that century. Traditionally, it is said that St. John, who lived to a great old age, wanted to supplement the first three to bring out the deeper meaning of Christ’s words and deeds. Sometimes it is difficult to tell where Christ’s words end and St. John’s begins.

If we look at all the gospels, we can see varieties in Christ’s words. This does not mean the writer of the Gospel did not pay attention to what Christ said and did. We should remember that most of the time Christ and the people in the Gospels were speaking in Aramaic, the everyday language of the Jews for that time. These words were then translated into Greek by people who were not native Greek speakers (except St. Luke) but rather had learned Greek as a second language. Except for St. Luke they certainly were not Greek scholars. So it is not surprising that the Gospels they left has some discrepancies. To the contrary, this shows that we have several views of Jesus Christ and they were not coping each other word by word. We have four writers describing Christ’s words and deeds. We know how much eye-witness testimony can vary, but that does not mean that the Gospels are inaccurate. We should be glad that we have several different accounts of the same words and deeds. The Gospel writers ere not trying to falsify the record but they were giving the sense, if not the exact meaning, of Christ’s activities. Again, we should remember that Christ was speaking in Aramaic, which was then put into Greek.

Fr. John