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Le Peau, Andrew T. Mark through Old Testament Eyes. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2017. Pb. 352 pp. $28.99.   Link to Kregel

As Andrew Le Peau observes in the introduction to this new commentary series, the New Testament writers were Old Testament people. Although this seems like an obvious statement, the symbols and literary patterns of the Old Testament are often overlooked in popular preaching and teaching on New Testament books. Although scholarship has done a better job setting the documents of the New Testament into the context of the Old in recent years, there is still much to be done to develop the database of background material available to illuminate the New Testament. There have been a few recent contributions in this area, D. A. Carson and G. K. Beale edited a single-volume Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (IVP 2007) and the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament and New Testament (2009 with many of the individual books available in separate volumes).  Although many commentaries include this sort of background material, there are few commentaries which focus exclusively on how the New Testament writers used the Old Testament.

Mark Through Old Testament EyesThis series of commentaries will provide a verse-by-verse commentary which integrates typical exegesis of the text with Old Testament background in order to help answer questions as they arise. With respect to the exposition of the text, Le Peau comments on key phrases with an eye to Old Testament parallels rather than the typical exegetical details found in most commentaries. For example, at Mark 9:43 “if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off,” Le Peau briefly discusses prohibitions on self-mutilation in the Law (Deut 14:1-3) as well as ancient  pagan practice (1 Kings 18:27-29). He also draws attention to the hand, foot and eye as a source of stumbling in Proverbs 6:16-10 and Job 31:1, 5, 7. In his commentary on Mark 3:37, Le Peau draws attention to the provision of abundant food is a “picture that looks ahead to Isaiah’s coming messianic kingdom” (123). He cites Isaiah 55:1-3 at length, but also notes the miraculous feeding in Numbers 11 and 2 Kings 4:42-44.

Throughout the commentary section, Greek and Hebrew words are used sparingly and always appear transliterated so those without language skills will have no trouble making use of the commentary. There is some interaction with contemporary scholarship, although this is light and all references appears in endnotes.

Throughout the commentary are a number of sidebars entitled “Through Old Testament Eyes.” These units focus on the big picture to show how a particular text picks up on themes and motifs from the Old Testament. For example, Le Peau offers a chart in his exposition of the feeding of the five thousand tracing parallels between Psalm 23 and Mark 6. I briefly commented on Psalm 23 as a messianic text and potential background for this miracle in Jesus the Bridegroom, so it is good to see the Psalm used to interpret a miracle often used to preach brotherly sharing rather than a miracle which reveals Jesus as the Messiah. Another example of this kind of sidebar is Le Peau’s short description of the suffering of the messiah in the Psalms to illuminate Mark 14-15 (275-8).

A second type of sidebar in this commentary series is labeled “What the Structure Means.” These sections focus on literary devices such as metaphor, hyperbole, or other elements of story-telling. Often these take the form of an outline of a pericope with attention to chiasms or other features. In Mark 10:13-52 he lists four predictions and a prediction which frame the unit. In another place Le Peau offers a list of examples in Mark of sets of three events (272-3) and draws attention to this literary style in the Old Testament.

One problem with scholarly background studies is a failure to connect the context with the contemporary reader. This commentary hopes to avoid this my balancing the background element with an application section. These sections are labeled “Going Deeper” and intend to connect the text of a New Testament book with internal debates within the early church as well as draw out implications for contemporary church questions. For example, the “Going Deeper” section following Le Peau’s exposition of Mark 9:14-50 is a pastoral reflection on anger and quarrelsomeness (173-2). The section following Mark 13:12 deals with a non-eschatological understanding of “watching and being alert.” The focus is on understanding suffering as a part of the disciple’s calling. Although this application is quite preachable, I am not sure the application arises from the text of the Olivet Discourse. The actual text of the commentary does a good job with the Old Testament (Daniel 7) and Second Temple (1 Maccabees) backgrounds to Jesus’s words and even notices the shift in 13:27 from the Temple in A.D. 70 to the “end of the age.” It seems to me the natural application in that section ought to concern a warning against false predictions of the end in the light of the very real end which will eventually arrive.

I have a few minor problems with this commentary which probably fall into the category of “this is not the book I would have written.” First, Le Peau’s commentary on Mark does not deal with introductory issues in any depth. There are two pages under the heading “Who was Mark?” which deal with the few appearances of Mark in Acts and the epistles along with an ancient African tradition about Mark’s family. Since the purpose of the commentary to provide background to read the Gospel of Mark, perhaps more ought to be said about traditional authorship. For example, if the tradition Mark was Peter’s interpreter in Rome is accurate, what does his use of the Old Testament imply about the original audience and intention of the Gospel? What does the use of a New Exodus motif imply about the audience?

Second, there is a very short introduction to the use of the Old Testament in the Gospel. Most of this four page section involves an illustration drawn from contemporary movies. Although this analogy does explain how a writer might allude to an earlier work, it fails to explain why Mark would use the Old Testament in the way he does. Mark is not paying tribute to Isaiah for his contributions to prophetic writing; Mark is alluding to Isaiah’s New Exodus motif because he believes Jesus is really enacting the metanarrative of the whole Old Testament and placing himself in the center of that story. I realize Le Peau simply does not have space to write a fully argued methodology in the introduction to this commentary, but improving this introduction would pay dividends as readers use the commentary to read Mark.

Third, although this might be less interesting to evangelical readers, I think the commentary could be improved by occasionally tracing a motif through the literature of the Second Temple period. In my review of the text, I only noticed a few references to 1 Maccabees in the context of the abomination of desolation and there are no references to the Apocrypha or Pseudepigrapha in the Scripture index. Although this is not always possible, perhaps using the Dead Sea Scrolls as background for son of David sayings or the messianic banquet would set the Gospel of Mark into a more broadly Jewish context.

A final comment goes beyond the scope of the commentary, but I raise it since few scholars have asked the question. In the commentary, Le Peau understands allusions to the Old Testament are a product of Mark’s narration of the events. But to what extent did the historical Jesus shape traditions by alluding the Old Testament himself?  If Mark 4:11 fairly records the words of Jesus, then the allusion to Daniel 2 and 4 in the phrase “mystery of the kingdom” comes from Jesus rather than Mark. If this is the case, does it affect the exegesis of Mark 4?

Nevertheless, Le Peau contributes a good commentary on Mark which focuses on an often overlooked aspect of New Testament research.

This is the inaugural volume of a new series from Kregel Academic, with four other volumes planned at this time (David Capes on Matthew, Karen Jobes on John, Gary Burge on Galatians and Ephesians, and Tremper Longman on Revelation). My copy of this book has a number of strange spacing errors in when the text is italicized, hopefully this can be corrected in future reprints of the commentary (p. 27, the word Spirit, p. 39, the phrase Kingdom of God; p. 49, the word quiet, p. 51, the word healed, etc.) This is a minor problem and does not detract from the value of the commentary.


NB: Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Published on August 25, 2017 on Reading Acts.

An angel warns Joseph not to divorce Mary because the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit (1:20-21). The angel indicates that the conception of the child is by the Holy Spirit. While we usually talk about this as a virgin birth, it is better to think in terms of a virgin conception and a normal birth. There is nothing in the Bible which implies that there was anything unusual about the pregnancy after it begins. Jesus’ birth was normal and Mary and Joseph go on to have other children.

The-AnnunciationThe Greek text does not have the definite article, the child is conceived by “a holy spirit.” There are a number of suggestions for what this might meet, at the very least it refers to the power of God as responsible for Mary’s pregnancy.

There is little use trying to figure out the “science” of how this happened, then whole point is that this is a miracle from God. The child is not Joseph’s nor is he the son of any human, he is the “son of God.” The connection of the Holy Spirit to the birth of Jesus is important for several reasons.

First, like Adam, the human Jesus is a special creation of God. Paul will use this parallelism between Adam and Jesus in Romans 5:12-21. The virgin birth is therefore analogous to the special creation of Adam in Genesis 2.

Second, the Hebrew Bible refers to the king of Israel as a “son of God.” In Ps 2:7, for example, the enthroned King of Heaven says to the king of Israel “you are my son, today I have begotten you.” The virgin birth is the ultimate enthronement of a king in the line of David. It is significant tat Joseph is called a “son of David” in this text, the only place in the New Testament where someone other than Jesus is given that title. This likely highlights the royal importance of the child to be born.

Third, there are many references to special servants of God in the Hebrew Bible who are born through miraculous circumstances. Beginning with Isaac, several old or barren women have children. Even John the Baptist is born in this classic “Old Testament”scenario. A virgin giving birth is the ultimate unlikely birth!

Fourth, there are a number of references to the coming messiah / servant of God as being specially empowered by the Spirit of God, Isa 11:2, for example, describes the “root of Jesse” as having the seven-fold Spirit of God upon him.

That the child is not the result of unfaithfulness, but rather a divine miracle, would comfort Joseph and assure him that this child is part of the larger plan of God.

One of the most secure facts about Jesus from New Testament is that he was “from Nazareth in Galilee.”  If he was  the Messiah, son of David, why was he not “from Bethlehem?”  As the readers of Matthew and Luke, we know he was born in Bethlehem and some of the reasons why he did not stay there.  But as with everything in the story of Jesus’ birth, there is more to the story.

BethlehemPolitical and economic issues in first century Palestine are the main reasons that Joseph moves from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Just like laborers today, You go where there is work!  Sepphoris and Tiberias, two large cities near Nazareth, had need for stone cutters and other craftsmen.  Joseph went to Nazareth there because there was work in the area. Bethlehem was a minor town which probably supplied sheep for the Temple.  Perhaps after the census there was simply no way for Joseph to support his growing family so he planned to return to Nazareth where there was family and work.

Matthew has a more theological explanation.  He quotes the prophet Hosea: out of Egypt I called my son, he is a Nazarene. Only in Matthew we are told that Herod intended to kill baby boys under the age of two in Bethlehem in an attempt to stop the Messiah from taking his throne.  This “slaughter of the innocent” is analogous to killing newborns in Egypt in the book of Exodus.  This leads to the “flight to Egypt,” although we are not told how long they remain in Egypt before returning to Galilee.

This fulfills the word of the Lord through Hosea, according to Matthew 2:14-15. While this does not seem like an appropriate use of the verse, the idea in Hosea is that Israel is God’s child who has taken refuge in Egypt, and after a period of time in Egypt he would be recalled back into the land of promise.  Hosea is looking back at the story of the Exodus, where Israel was in Egypt for their protection and are called out of Egypt in order to enter the land.

Jesus is, in a very real sense, the Son of God. In another sense, Jesus is re-enacting the experience of Israel by fleeing from the land to Egypt and returning again at the direction of God. There are a number of parallels to the experience of Israel in the gospels, for example, he too will be tempted in the wilderness; on the cross Jesus takes the curse of the law on himself and pays for the nations rebellion himself.

That the family should settle in Nazareth fulfills another scripture for Matthew (2:21-23). This is a bit more problematic since there is no specific text which says that the messiah should be called a Nazarite, or as the NIV translates, a Nazorean.  Nazareth was another extremely small, insignificant village, so it is unlikely that a Hebrew prophet would have predicted that he would come from this town, especially since the messiah was to come from the town of David. It is possible that the phrase does not mean that he would come from the town of Nazareth, but rather that he would be a Nazarite, someone who has taken a Nazarite vow. But again, no scripture really says that the messiah would have taken a Nazarite vow.

Another possibility is that the line in Matthew refers to Isaiah 11:1, which says that the messiah will be a “root from the stump of Jesse,” or a branch. The Hebrew word for root / branch is nezer, and Matthew is making a play-on-words with the name of the town (although these are two different words).

Another possibility is that Nazarene was slang for a person from a remote place (Blomberg, Matthew, NAC, 69 suggests this).  Perhaps it is like saying that someone is from “Hickville.”  Most regions have an “other side of the tracks,” Nazareth was proverbially on the wrong side.

Whatever the reason he was called a Nazarene, the title points to humble origins.  As with his birth in Bethlehem, Jesus’ time in Nazareth is an indication that God will do great things through the Messiah who is hidden, who is small and insignificant at first (Matt 13:31-33).

John 10 begins with the closest thing to a parable we find in the Gospel of John. While parables are common in the other three Gospels, John does not record a single parable. In this passage, Jesus uses an extended metaphor drawn from the common experience of tending sheep. If the audience had not tended sheep themselves, they knew that these things were true from their experience.

Good_ShepherdJesus chose this metaphor intentionally since the image of a shepherd is used in the Old Testament frequently for the leaders of the nation. The are bad shepherds who are not leading the people “beside still waters” (Psa 23) The people are like “sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). In contrast, Jesus leads the people into the wilderness and provides food for them (the feeding of the 5000), seeking out the lost sheep wherever they are (Luke 15:3-7) and ultimately laying Jesus will lay down his life down on behalf of his flock.

What is more, this image of a true shepherd is a messianic image found in the Old Testament. Moses led sheep for 40 years in the wilderness before God called him to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, and the ideal King of Israel was David, who was first a shepherd before his was a king. Psalm 23 has messianic overtones (“The Lord is my shepherd”), but Ezekiel 37:24-28 is the most clear use of a shepherd metaphor for the coming Messiah, the true son of David and ideal shepherd who replaces the bad leaders who have led the people into danger but do nothing to save them.

The image of a God as a shepherd is found frequently in the Old Testament. God is described as a shepherd for his people (Gen 48:15, 49:24, Ps 23:1, 28:9, 77:20, 78:52, 80:1, Isa 40:11, Jer 31:10) and the people of Israel are regularly refer to as the sheep of God’s pasture (Ps 74:1, 78:52, 79:13, 95:7, 100:3, Ezek 34:31). It is possible that Jesus had Ezekiel 34 in mind, but the fact that the image of an ultimately good shepherd who will lead God’s people back to the land appears in Isaiah 40 and Jeremiah 31 as well. These are passages Jesus uses frequently in his teaching and would have been well-known to the listeners in the Temple.

By claiming to be the Good Shepherd, Jesus in intentionally declaring that he is the Messiah and therefore God’s son. But he will go beyond the expectation that the Messiah will be the ideal king, a new Moses and new David. Just as both those men could be called “a son of God,” Jesus also claims to be the ideal Son of God because he is in fact God.

There is a great deal of material which makes this claim even more clear – is this an accurate reading of the words of Jesus?  Is he claiming to be the eschatological shepherd?

John’s gospel quite different from the synoptic Gospels in that he includes a few stories from the “other disciples.” For example, in Galilee Jesus finds Philip and simply tells him, “follow me.” Philip is featured in John in several contexts (6:5–8; 12:21–22; 14:8–10). In the other gospels Philip. only appears in the lists of apostles.

St PhilipAt the feeding of the 5000, Philip does not anticipate the miracle, but focuses on the problem of feeding such a large group (John 6:5-8). We know that Jesus’ question was a test, and we have a sense that Philip did not “pass” the test. But what is it that Philip should have said or done?

In this context, what was Philip to think? Jesus asks him where they were to buy food – the only answer to that question would seem “nowhere” since we do not have the money, nor is there a place to buy sufficient food. Perhaps Philip was to search his memory for a scriptural context for the event in which he was about to participate. If he knew the scripture well (as was implied at the time of his calling), then he ought to have recalled that the Lord did in fact provide food for Israel in the wilderness, and that one of the images of the messianic age was supposed to be provision of food, so that no one would be hungry in true Israel. Philip therefore looks at the problem from a perfectly acceptable human perspective (this is too great of a problem to handle!), while Jesus looks at the problem from a divine perspective – God owns all the food in the world and provided for his people in the wilderness in the past.

Near the end of Jesus’ ministry, several Greek converts to Judaism ask to see Jesus. They ask Philip to arrange this meeting, but Jesus has told the disciples not to go to Gentiles. This raises a problem, so Philip tells Andrew (John 12:21-22). This too can be taken as a misunderstanding of the scripture. It is not that Gentiles will never be able to come the to the Messiah, Isa 25:6-8 makes it clear that the nations will come to Zion at the time of the Messiah’s banquet. But there is a stream of Judaism which did not think any nations would survive this encounter! Of all the disciples, Philip (the guy with the Greek name) should have understood this most clearly. If he lived in a gentile city, what did he think would happen to his neighbors when messiah came?

At the last supper, Philip misunderstands Jesus’ statement “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:8-10). Jesus says that he is about to go back to the father, but Philip cannot seem to understand this rather complex theological statement. Just show us the father, Philip says, and forget about these theological claims about yourself. “Philip’s words here are easy to understand because they represent the general human longing to gain a firsthand personal and practical confirmation of theological ideas and assertions” (Borchert, John 12-21, 112).

Here is the problem – Philip’s practicality prevents him from hearing the deep resonations of Jesus’ statement about himself. Jesus is claiming to be God here, Philip sets that aside rather easily. Jesus rebukes Philip, although Jesus does uses the plural pronoun. All the disciples misunderstand that the messiah is not just a deliverer, but the Glory of God incarnate.

Is Philip a rationalist? (Borchert says this, more or less.) Not really, but his pre-conceived ideas about who messiah could be has blinded him from hearing this (somewhat clear) revelation form Jesus that the Messiah is in fact God, dwelling among men, so that he can solve the problem of sin once for all.

We know far less about Andrew than Peter, James and John, although he is often listed along with these three in the gospels.  Andrew and Peter were brothers, as were James and John, working in the same fishing village in Galilee when they are called to be followers of Jesus.  But all four seem to have been looking for the coming of the Messiah, as we see from reading John 1.

AndrewWhen John the Baptist was still baptizing in the Jordan, Andrew is following him.  They encounter the Lord and John the Baptist announce that Jesus is the Messiah.  In John’s gospel, this is the third day, usually significant in the Bible!  The witness of John starts a “chain reaction” as Jesus is followed by Andrew and another disciple of John the Baptist (1:35-39).

John declares that Jesus is the lamb of God, this time some of his disciples begin to follow Jesus, in effect transferring from John’s ministry to Jesus’. Andrew is one of the disciples simply mentioned in the Synoptics.  In John he figures significantly in several stories.  In each story, he is described as bringing someone or something to Jesus.  This other disciple may be the “disciple whom Jesus loved” in the second half of the gospel.  Andrew declares that Jesus is a teacher and Messiah, and bring Simon, Cephas (Peter) to Jesus.

The next day (the fourth over all), Andrew invites his brother Simon to follow Jesus (John 1:40-42).  Andrew confesses to Simon that they have found the Messiah.   This is a unique occurrence of the word Messiah rather than the common Greek translation, “Christ.” It is significant that Peter’s brother makes this confession early on, later Peter will make the same statement in 6:68, although he uses the title, “holy one of God,” something of a higher Christological statement than Andrew. Andrew is therefore the first disciple to actually call Jesus the Messiah in John’s gospel, although we are not at all sure to what extent he understood the term.

The second time Andrew appears in the story of John’s gospel is at the Feeding of the 5000 (John 6:1-14).  John contrasts two disciples, Phil and Andrew.  Philip, we are told, was tested and his response is a bit flat.  Perhaps Andrew too was tested, although I wonder if his response is a great deal better.  Obviously he sees the same problem as Philip, it is going to be impossible to feed all of these people.   But rather than state the impossibility of the situation, he begins to find a solution.  He made a start at the impossible task, even though it looks a bit weak to the other disciples.

Jesus honors Andrew’s offering, weak as it was, and uses the five loaves and two fish to not only do a great miracle, but also to demonstrate something very important about himself – he is the bread of Life, just as Israel had manna in the wilderness, so too Jesus gives food in the wilderness.  This is an extremely important connection, given that this is around the time of Passover.

Andrew therefore did the right thing, although it seemed fairly insignificant at the time.

The identity of Nathaniel is a problem since he is not mentioned as a disciple in the synoptic gospels.  Usually he is identified as Bartholomew based on the order of the apostles in the Synoptics.  (Bartholomew always follows Philip in the lists.)  Bar-Tholami is the from of the name in Aramaic, meaning “son of Tholami,” therefore his full name was likely  Nathaniel Bar-Tholami (cf. Simon Bar-Jonah). John seems to treat Nathaniel as an apostle, and he never mentions Bartholomew, making the identification quite likely.

Saint NathanaelWhen Philip declares that he has found the Messiah, he describes Jesus in biblical terms: Jesus is the one whom Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets wrote about (John 1:43-45).  That the Law and the Prophets testify to the messiah is clear from other New Testament texts.  Early on the apostles drew together a number of texts which were proofs that Jesus was the Messiah, but their source for much of this material is Jewish thinking about what to expect in the Messiah.

Nathaniel’s response is stunning:  “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  (1:46) This seems a rude statement of prejudice, probably because Nazareth was a rather small and insignificant town in Galilee. It is true both towns were small and insignificant, but what should Nathaniel have said?  Presumably he ought to have recalled that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem, according to Mi 5:2; or that he should be in the line of David from Psalm 2, or that he will be a king of Israel as in Zeph 3:15, or that he will come as a peaceful king riding a donkey, as in Zech 9:9.  But not that he will be a carpenter form Nazareth!

Is this an irrational prejudice? Most likely, and it is this sort of prejudice which blinds people to the gospels – how can someone like that possible have something to share with me spiritually?  Perhaps we do not suffer from a prejudice, but other people might very well have a real problem with us and will not hear the gospel because we are overplaying a less important issue rather than helping people to encounter Jesus.  In Nathaniel’s case, prejudice does not prevent him from coming to faith in Jesus.  He is able to set aside his preconceptions and encounter Jesus as he really is – the Son of God.

When Jesus arrives he declares that Nathaniel is an “Israelite in whom there is no guile.”   The background to this equally puzzling statement is the story of Jacob.  Jesus might as well have said, “here is a son of Israel with no Jacob left in him!” Just as the true heir of the promise was Jacob, not Esau; the true heir of the promise in John are the disciples, not the Pharisees, etc.  That there is a bit of play on the Jacob story is also clear in the reference to “heaven opening” and angels ascending and descending.  Essentially Jesus is saying that Jacob is a true Israelite, a man who is honestly seeking his God and is not distracted by the Works of the Law (Romans 2:28-29, 9:6-7)  In John 8:31 Jesus says that if the disciples abide in his words they will truly be his disciples, the same word is used as 1:47.

Nathaniel is a True Israelite, and if the disciples really understand and internalize his Jesus’ words they too will be True Israel.

The differences between John and the Synoptics provide an opportunity for scholars to study the formation of a gospel from a different angle. John may have used other Gospels, or purposefully ignored them. Often complicated scenarios are created in order to describe multiple versions of the Gospel of John. Raymond Brown suggested a plausible multiple edition theory to explain how John’s gospel developed over a period of time. In most “multiple editions” theories there was a single base document which underwent several revisions, possibly at the hand of the original author, over a number of years.

John EditionsBrown’s first stage was the actual public ministry of Jesus and his disciples. After the resurrection, the twelve apostles publicly preached the resurrection of Jesus. The synoptic gospels reflect this apostolic preaching. The tradition that Mark preserve the preaching of Peter may indicate that the outline and content of the book as the content to of the apostolic “trust.” Matthew and Luke make use of Mark, and possible Q (or Matthew has the Q material, either way, Matthew and Luke reflect the Galilean disciples of Jesus).

According to Brown, John reflects the preaching and teaching of the disciples of Jesus in and around Jerusalem. This accounts for the different sorts of information that was remembered and passed along, for differences in tone and language, for the emphasis on Jerusalem and the Jewish festivals, and possible (so says Brown), the Light / Dark theme that is parallel to what we read in the Qumran materials.

It is possible that the Johannine Community included Samaritans, based on John 4 and 8:48 (Jesus is accused of being a Samaritan.)  Jews and Samaritans sharing fellowship in a single religious community would have been scandalous, especially in pre-70 Judea. Brown suggests that Jews that accepted Jesus as the Messiah convinced in synagogues.

But relationships between these Jews and Samaritans would have been tense. Discussion of Jesus as Messiah generated a number of “homilies” preserving Jesus’ teaching as attempts to convince Jews he was the Messiah. It is possible that some time before A. D. 70 these Jewish Christians were expelled from the synagogue, ostracized and persecuted (as implied in John 1:11, 10:28-29; 15:18, 16:2 and the “not of this world” theme in 15:18, 16:3, 16:33).

The Gospel of John therefore could be aimed at Jewish Christians that are still in the synagogue (“crypto-Christians” in Brown) who are not fully “Christian” in the opinion of the author. They need to come out and be separate from the Synagogue. A second aim would therefore be to continue to try and convince Jews and Jesus was the Messiah.

Brown’s work is well-respected and is always discussed in recent study of the Gospel of John, but it does not appear this scenario has convinced everyone, as Paul Rainbow comments in his recent introduction to Johannine Theology, scholars “amass tomes trying to squeeze theories from the almost dearth of information that we have about unknown authors and redactors” (53).

Nevertheless, there is something to Brown’s contention that the Gospel of John is a kind of reflection of the “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity in the last third of the first century. This accounts for the Jewishness of John’s Gospel while also reflecting a fairly well-developed Christology. If this Gospel is some kind of a Jewish-Christian missionary tract, how would our reading of John change?

Are there specific elements in John that are more “Jewish” than often assumed?

Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus first appeared after the resurrection. We are not told why and it may not be important. But while the other ten were locked in the upper room out of fear, Thomas was someplace else. Thomas seemed ready to die with Jesus in John 11, so it may be the case that he is willing to go about his life, almost daring the Jews to arrest him too.

On the other hand, perhaps Thomas experienced a “crisis of faith” when Jesus died. If he believed Jesus was the Messiah and that the Messiah was not going to be crucified by the Romans, perhaps Jesus’ death caused him to doubt everything. He may be in a state of denial, like Peter, but deeper.

Whatever the case, he returns to the upper room the disciples tell him that Jesus is alive. Jesus is “more than alive,” he has risen from the dead to a new kind of life. Whatever the reason, when he is told that Jesus rose from the dead, he refuses to believe without further evidence. Thomas gets a bad reputation as a skeptic for not believing what the disciples told him.

On the other hand, there is virtually nothing in Second Temple Period Judaism that anticipated the death of the Messiah not his resurrection to eternal life. It was something which Thomas was not ready to believe since it was unbelievable within his world view. The disciples are making an extraordinary claim, that the messiah intended to die and rise to eternal life. This will require them to re-think virtually everything that they believe.

When Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples a second time, Thomas believes and confesses Jesus as “Lord and God” (v. 28). Thomas’s confession is a theological statement for the whole book of John. The writer has been slowly revealing who Jesus is through a series of misunderstandings, people hear Jesus’ words but do not fully comprehend his meaning. Even after the resurrection, Mary thinks Jesus’ body was stolen, then the disciples wonder if he ever really died. Even when he appears to them, they still do not confess Jesus quite the way Thomas does in v. 28.

John therefore intends Thomas’s words as a final word on who Jesus is: he is the “Lord and God” of the reader, and that by believing that he is the Lord one can have eternal life in his name (verse 31). Are there other ways in which Thomas’s faithful statement functions like a theological conclusion to the Gospel of John?

One of the more difficult lines in the Gospel of John is Jesus’ reaction to Mary: Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (verse 17). What does Jesus mean?

It may be the case that he has only just resurrected, and cannot be touched until he ascends. The KJV makes the problem more difficult by translating the verb as “touch,” rather than “cling.” But the ascension takes place forty days later, and later in this chapter Jesus tells Thomas to touch the wounds on his hands and side. Unless we assume that there is an ascension sometime during that day which “completed” the resurrection, this cannot be what Jesus means here.

 Noli me tangere Lambert Sustris (1515-1591)

Noli me tangere
Lambert Sustris (1515-1591)

A more likely explanation is that Mary is not just touching Jesus, but “clinging” to him. The verb ἅπτω is not uncommon in the New Testament, but is used by John only here (and 1 John 5:18, the evil one cannot touch the believer). It is likely that Mary fell at Jesus’ feet and was clinging to him in a way we might expect since she thought he was dead! Mary is holding on to Jesus so tightly that she does not want to let him go ever again!

Coupled with the allusion to the ascension, this line probably means something like, “Mary, you do not have to cling to me, I have not yet ascended to heaven! I’ll be here for a little while longer.”

It is possible that Mary’s emotional response to seeing Jesus is a hint that she has not fully understood the resurrection, perhaps thinking that Jesus had not actually died. Mary returns to the disciples, who are likely discussing where the body of Jesus might have gone. When she arrives, she announces that she has seen the Lord and that he is alive. At this point, she does not say “he has risen from the dead.” It is only after he appeared to his disciples that they begin to understand what has happened.

John’s gospel is a well-constructed piece of theology and it is hard for me to believe that John did not intend a little more here than simply warning Mary that he was not immediately leaving her again.  What might be the theological point John is making in this unusual story?  It is also possible that John is making a pastoral point as well by describing Mary’s emotional response to the resurrection, or is there something more theological going on in this story?

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Christian Theology

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