Monday, March 01, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Mark 13-16 and Luke 1

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Mark, chapters 13 through 16 and Luke, chapter 1.

Chapter 13

  • When reading through Chapter 24 of Matthew, I commented on how, to those in the first century, the idea of the "End Times" and the concept of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem were really not seen as two separate or distinct ideas.  I think that point bears repeating here, since the comment the disciples make in verse 1 (apparently in awe of the temple and its surroundings), Jesus' comment that follows, and the disciples' subsequent question in verse 4--all apparently about the temple--otherwise seem entirely disconnected from Jesus' response starting in verse 5 that seems to have little to do with the temple, but everything to do with the End.
  • Verse 14: "let the reader understand" - this is a rather remarkable interjection into Jesus' comments, coming right after a reference to the book of Daniel.  One explanation I have heard to explain these words reflects on the fact that, when the gospels were first circulating, they were not generally read by individual Christians as Bibles are often read today, but were in fact read publicly during early Christian worship gatherings.  The instruction to understand would therefore be an alert to the person reading the text aloud so that he would give the words spoken the proper inflection and/or emphasis.  Hooker does not mention this theory at all, but rather notes a couple of alternative theories.  One is that the instruction to understand is instead a signal that "Mark has deliberately obscured a straightforward historical prediction... because of the dangerous political situation" at the time of his writing.1  This is actually not Hooker's own understanding of the text.  Rather, she suggests that Mark himself believed that the destruction of the temple (already having occurred in the very recent past as she sees it)2 was "both the fulfilment of Daniel's prophecy, and also the sign of the arrival of the last things," and thus Mark is warning his readers of the tribulations soon to come.3  If Hooker's interpretation is correct, what implication would this have for us today, knowing that the end did not actually occur on the heels of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70?
  • Verse 32: "nor the Son" - I've already commented on this back in Matthew, so I'm just going to link back to that... 
Chapter 14
  • Verse 3-9 - This story of a woman anointing Jesus (or something like it) shows up in all four gospels.  Matthew's version is quite similar (though not identical).  Luke's version is different enough that it's entirely possible that it refers to a separate (if similar) incident.  John's has several similarities (it also takes place in Bethany, for example) but enough differences (John uses Lazarus' home instead of Simon the Leper's, and the number of days before Passover is changed to six from two) to cause difficulty.4  Shall we consider the possibility of yet another distinct (but similar) incident (making at least three), or do we explain away the differences as some kind of error on the part of one or more of the writers?  Obviously, the presuppositions one makes about what kind of a book the Bible is come to play here.
  • Verse 31 - Lest we be too hard on Peter, I'm quick to note that Mark tells us that "all the others said the same."
  • Verses 51-52 - These two verses seem to come out of nowhere.  Why include them?  One common explanation is that the person described here is none other than Mark himself.  Besides the problem that this "can only be speculation,"5 it would be worth noting that, if true, Mark clearly doesn't mind portraying himself in an embarrassing light.
  • Verses 61: "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?" - the audio version I listened to asked this question with a kind of awe, as though the high priest asking the question was just on the verge of realizing the truth.  Given the response in verses 63-64, I don't think this is how the question would have been asked.  Rather, I have in mind that the high priest, recognizing the kind of language being used about Jesus elsewhere, was asking the question in a manner more as if to say "Do you dare to make this claim about yourself?" 
Chapter 15
  • Jesus meets Pilate, is rejected by the people, is crucified and buried, all in this chapter.
Chapter 16
  • Verse 8 - The earliest and most reliable manuscripts end the gospel at this point, and it is a common consensus that this is where Mark was originally meant to end.  This is a rather odd ending, to be sure.  No one has actually seen the risen Jesus, and the people who have been told that Jesus has been raised are last seen running from the tomb afraid, and saying nothing to anyone!  It is therefore perhaps easy to imagine why later Christians wrote an addition to the end of the gospel.  However, this leaves Christians (especially those who believe in the inerrancy of the original manuscripts) a difficult choice.  Do we reject the verses of Mark which follow as being "uninspired" (they're almost certainly absent from those "original manuscripts"), or do we consider the verses inspired at least in part as a result of the Christian tradition which not only created them, but which has also maintained and preserved them over the centuries?
  • Verses 9-20 - Although almost certainly written later than the rest of the gospel, these verses are known to have existed at least as early as AD 140,6 and thus are still from a very early period of Christian tradition.
  • Verse 12: "Jesus appeared in a different form" - OK, I can't resist the suggestion that Jesus was a Transformer! ;)  But, seriously, I find this point remarkable.  What was Jesus doing?  Did the risen Jesus actually look different to each person or group of people he appeared to?  It would certainly explain why some failed to recognize him (as attested in other gospels).
Chapter 1
  • Verses 1-4 - Luke starts out a bit differently than the other gospels.  From the outset, Luke makes it clear that he knows that other people have already written about the topic he's about to write about.  Luke also suggests that he's undertaking what today might be understood as an academic enterprise.  He's researched his material.  Finally, this is the only gospel that is apparently being written to and/or for a specific audience.  Since anyone who's studied Greek can quickly parse "Theophilus" as meaning "God lover," I hesitate to say that this is the person's actual name.  But I won't pretend to know Greek names at this point.7
  • Verses 5-25 - Luke gets into his narrative by detailing the pre-birth story of, not Jesus, but John the Baptizer.  We don't even meet Jesus' earthly parents for a bit, yet.  I find it remarkable that all of the Gospels seem to consider John such an important person.  Yet, when it comes down to it, we know remarkably little about him.  A lot of what we do know comes from this chapter.
  • Verses 18 vs. verse 34 - I think it's remarkable that both Zechariah and Mary have questions about the possibility of the births they are both about to witness/participate in.  Yet Zechariah's question, "How can I be sure of this?", is met with a rebuke (not to mention his subsequent inability to speak until John's birth) while Mary's very similar-sounding question, "How will this be?", is not treated so negatively.  While I've heard many suggest that Zechariah's question reflects a state of disbelief, while Mary's does not (she is simply curious about the process), I hesitate to say that this is borne out by the text itself.  Rather, the explanation sounds to me like an effort to reconcile an apparent difficulty with the fact that two similar questions got such different responses.  That doesn't make such an explanation necessarily wrong, but I want to be careful not to attribute to the text things that may not actually be there.
  • Verse 26 - I also think it's remarkable that it's apparently the very same angel that appears to both people.  We don't get names for angels all that often, so the fact that Gabriel is so explicitly mentioned here seems important.
  • Verses 43-56 and 67-79 - Two songs of praise in the first chapter!  John's not sparing us the details when he tells this story!
  • Verse 61 - As the only one among my siblings to not have a name that one of my relatives had first, I'm probably not unbiased, but if all children must been given names that relatives have already had, where do new names come from in the first place?

1Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Black's New Testament Commentaries), Hendrickson Publishers, 1999. p. 314.
2See Hooker, p. 8.
3Hooker, p. 315.
4These and other variations are described in Hooker, p. 327.  Hooker also notes that none of the gospels identifies the woman anointing Jesus as Mary Magdalene.  That tradition apparently arose in the fourth century.
5Hooker, p. 352.
6See Hooker, p. 389.
7As with Matthew and Mark, I have already chosen a commentary to use for my notes on Luke. However, as I am writing this on Sunday afternoon, I have inadvertently left that commentary at my office in Pasadena rather than take it home with me, so I'll have to wait until next week to refer to that.

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