Every third summer the sultry Dog Days are treated to an extraordinary exposition on the Holy Eucharist from the Gospel of Saint John. St. John does not have “his own” year in the Church’s collection of Sunday readings; Matthew, Mark, and Luke are read during the A, B, and C years respectively. The year 2021 is a “B” year and we have followed the narrative of St. Mark. St. John’s Gospel is preserved for special feasts and seasons, particularly Lent and Easter. But in the B year the Church designates six successive Sundays of the summer to the sixth chapter of St. John, the famous “breads narrative.” The sixth chapter of John is read in its entirely from the 17th through the 21st Sundays of Ordinary Time in the B Cycle.
The first Sunday in this six-week series narrates the miracle of the loaves and fishes. In the study of the Gospel there is a principle called “multiple attestation,” meaning that the more an episode is repeated over the four Gospels, the more likely it has a strong historical event underlying it. Thus, the Baptism of Jesus, the desert Temptation, the calling of the Twelve, the Transfiguration, the Last Supper and the Crucifixion most certainly occurred in history. This does not eliminate other events narrated in individual Gospels nor Gospel accounts created by the inspired evangelists to bring forth divine truth. The rule of multiple attestation simply highlights what the early Church believed were the most critical and the memorable of events handed down by the first generation of Jesus’ witnesses.
The feeding of the thousands by Jesus, multiplying a few loaves of bread and fish, appears in all four Gospels [In Mark, twice!]. John, the last Gospel to be written, around 100 A.D., has very few miracles, about six. When John includes a miracle, which he calls “signs,” he uses the story to introduce a lengthy instruction, which occurs here. After the miracle of the feeding, there is a protracted discussion and controversy about the true bread from heaven which occupies the rest of Chapter 6, a masterful doctrinal piece that sets the table [no pun intended] for understanding the nature of the Eucharistic meal.
John’s story of the bread and fish miracle has strongly Jewish overtones. By the time of John’s Gospel, relations between Jewish Christian converts and Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah had deteriorated badly, and John wishes to make the case that the Jewish promise made to Abraham and Moses had passed along to Jesus as the center of a new covenant. We can see clever hints in John’s narrative of his intention. For example, John inserts these details: a large crowd followed Jesus to a mountain because they had seen signs [think Moses and Sinai]; Jesus went up a mountain, like Moses; the Jewish feast of Passover was at hand; there was a great deal of grass in the place [springtime, the season of Passover].
In his account, St. Mark observes that Jesus was moved with pity at the crowd which had been with him for three days. St. John does not mention this. For John, the sign value of what he will do is the primary concern. So, Jesus sends up a test balloon to Philip in the form of a question, “where do we get enough food to feed them?” In the preceding Chapter 4, Jesus had assured his disciples that he was the source of a food that never runs out, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me.” [John 4: 30-38] The correct answer from Philip would have been something along the lines of “I trust that you have the true bread from heaven that will save us all.” [A Jewish reference to manna would have been appropriate.]
Instead, Philip answers with the mundane observation that two hundred days’ wages of food would not feed the crowd at hand. He does not yet have faith in Jesus to save, and his answer is only marginally more polite than the Hebrews in the desert who “murmured” against Moses that he had led them out to the desert only to die of hunger. Andrew’s faith is not much stronger. He comes forth with five barley loaves—historically, the bread of the poor—and two fish, lamenting that “what good are these among so many?”
What happens next is one of the great wonders of the Gospel. We get our first idea of the size of the crowd, as Jesus orders them to sit in the grass. There are five thousand men, not counting the women and children. What follows is one of those maddening Gospel narratives—like the Resurrection itself—that provides enough description to take the reader to the edge of faith and leaves him or her to assent or deny. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, and distributes it. The term “to give thanks” is rendered in Gospel Greek Eucharisteo; the word that has passed down as the backbone of the Christian worshipping assembly as well as our theology of communion.
The miracle itself is not described, only its origins and its results. How did Jesus feed thousands of persons from his small offering of bread and fish? I have heard over the years efforts to explain the event in natural terms. For example, some have theorized that everyone present was hiding their precious stash of food, but the example of Jesus giving his away led everyone to share what they had. The problem with this theory is reconciling it with the recorded actions of the people at this mountainside meal. John records [6: 14-15] that the people exclaimed Jesus as “truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into this world.” Jesus, having performed this sign, “knew that they were going to carry him off to make him a king….” So, the Gospel itself, without giving technical details, conveys that the witnesses were so overwhelmed by this sign that they moved in almost mass hysteria.
Much has been made in recent years of the apparent lack of understanding of the Eucharist as the real Body and Blood of Christ. I suspect that most Catholics think of communion as a fellowship around Christ, but that in today’s culture it is hard to believe in real miracles that transcend the law of nature. John’s Gospel does not contain very many miracles, but they are all of the “in your face” type, starting with the Wedding Feast of Cana [water changed to wine] and concluding with the raising of Lazarus from the dead. At some point in our lives, we must come to grips with the idea that Jesus truly worked miracles that defied science and logic. After all, we are banking on the most irrational concept of all, that some day our graves will open, and we will experience a life beyond death.
I neglected one point in the miracle narrative: the collection of the leftovers. After everyone had eaten to their fill, Jesus commands that the uneaten portions be collected, which totaled twelve full baskets. This is not an incidental item. There is a biblical theme throughout that when God feeds his people, he does so in copious amounts and with the finest foods. Joel 2:24 states: “And the floors shall be full of wheat, and the fats shall overflow with wine and oil.” Second, the number twelve is symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus is demonstrating his establishment of the new and eternal Jerusalem in his person. And finally, there is a peculiar literary insertion. St. John’s Greek narrative states that the baskets were full of fragments, or klasmata. The Didache, a first century description of the very early Church, uses the same word klasmata to describe the pieces of Eucharistic bread broken during the worship rite. Thus, the connection between the miracle of the loaves and fishes and the Eucharistic celebration of then and now is unmistakable.
Belief in the Eucharist as the eternal Christ is belief in unity with him after death. “He who eats this bread and drinks this cup has everlasting life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Believe it.
Having introduced the New Testament letters of John and Peter in the “Smallest Books of the Bible” posts [see posts below], this week I was moved to meditate upon and research the Hebrew Prophet Micah. The original Micah, or Micah the Morashtite, prophesized sometime between 742 and 687 B.C. Nothing is known about his personal life except some traces of information in his seven chapters. Sister Irene Nowell, O.S.B., Micah’s scholar for The Paulist Biblical Commentary, notes that other Biblical prophets exercised their ministry during Micah’s time: Isaiah in the southern kingdom, and Amos in the north.
A quick overview of geography is helpful when approaching this work. We are accustomed to thinking of Israel as one entity led by God’s anointed kings. However about two centuries after the glory years of David and Solomon, the kingdom divided into Israel [north] and Judah [south]. The capital city of the northern kingdom was Samaria, later destroyed, and Samaria became a region in tension with Israel to the south. Think of the “Good Samaritan [St. Luke’s Gospel] “and “The Samaritan Woman at the Well” [St. John’s Gospel.] The two capital cities in Micah’s time were Jerusalem [south] and Samaria [north], and while there are many towns mentioned in Micah’s texts, they are secondary to the prophet’s main thrust of calling out the sinfulness of “big city living.”
It did not require a seer to see life-shattering threats upon the horizon. The northern kingdom was hedged in by Assyrians [early Syria] to their north, and in fact the Assyrians would overrun the northern kingdom and destroy much of it in 720 B.C. Micah understood that the southern kingdom, losing its northern buffer, would at some point face a similar fate, which indeed occurred in 586 B.C. when Babylon seized the remaining southern kingdom and carried off the occupants in the “Babylon Captivity” which lasted 50 years. Consequently Micah, preaching during the northern crisis, directs his preaching to both kingdom capitals which had fallen into spiritual decay.
Micah does not waste time. From the very start he announces that he has received “the word of the Lord” which he directs to both Jerusalem and Samaria. Samaria will become “a stone heap” for its sins, which from the context of chapter one appears to be idolatry and probably temple prostitution. Idolatry can mean multiple things, but at its heart is a failure to trust God and a tendency to “hedge bets” with other powers by trading, treaties, adopting pagan fertility rites, etc. God takes the abandonment of trust and fidelity to the Law with the rage one would expect from a spouse who has been sexually betrayed. This theme of conjugal betrayal is used elsewhere in prophetic writing, notably the Book of the Prophet Hosea. Temple prostitution itself was a regrettable but real institution of support for the holy place until the later years before the coming of Christ.
Chapter 2 of Micah should give us pause in the United States. The preaching here turns to “redistribution,” from the poor to the rich. “They [the rich] covet fields, and seize them; houses, and they take them; they cheat an owner of his house, a man of his inheritance.” He goes on in Chapter 3: “Hear this…you rulers of the house of Israel. You who abhor what is just and pervert all that is right…her leaders render judgment for a bribe, her priests give decisions for a salary, her prophets divine for money.” Micah scorns the mindset of the rich and powerful, who believe they can live in such an imbalanced society with impunity. “Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No evil can come upon us!” But Micah, speaking for God, demurs: “Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed like a field, and Jerusalem reduced to rubble.”
The obligation of society—to stamp out abuse of the poor by the rich--is probably the primary ethical teaching of the entire collection of prophetic books of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures. When coupled with absolute love of God and obedience to his Law, this is the summit of Jewish life. There are some who say that with the coming of Jesus, the moral life of Israel ceased to be the determining factor in eternal destiny. They forget that Jesus was born, lived, and died a Jew. When Jesus was pressed about the final judgment, in Matthew’s Gospel [Matthew 25: 41-45] Jesus had Micah in mind when he stated a hard truth:
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ “Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ “Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The Book of Micah is not well known to most Catholics; one could probably say the same thing about much of the Hebrew Scripture. And alas, in the case of Micah, the name might stir to mind the celebrational vibes of the Christmas Season of the Christian Calendar. For Micah Chapter 5 begins with a prediction: “But you, Bethlehem-Ephratha, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.” For centuries Micah 5 was considered a prediction of the birth of Christ, though most of the chapter describes this future figure as a new king of Israel who will unite the nation and reclaim any lands lost to the Assyrians. To highlight Bethlehem, a nondescript town, would be very consistent with Micah’s disgust of big cities. The association of Micah’s prophesy with the birth of Jesus is made by the Christian evangelist St. Matthew. In Chapter 2 of his Gospel, the famous visit of the Wise Men of the East read every year on the Feast of the Epiphany, Matthew describes King Herod coming unhinged at the appearance of the Magi seeking the newborn king of the Jews. Herod convenes his clergy:
When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’]”
Micah is one of twelve “minor prophets” in contrast to the major prophets such as Isaiah, whose work runs past 60 chapters. But there is a remarkable harmony to all the prophetic literature and the ultimate commandments of Christ. The key is behavior: individuals and nations who do not rest until every human being, a child of God, has experienced God’s expression of protection and justice at our hands motivated by a genuine sense of brotherhood under God’s watchful eye. Micah’s simple seven-chapter book brings home the consequences of indifference and abetting a status quo which institutionalizes economic and social dysfunction.
For the text of Micah and a brief commentary, the USCCB provides free access here.
The Paulist Biblical Commentary treats of Isaiah, pp. 842-851. The PBC is a valuable addition to any church minister, teacher, or student of the Bible.
The most recent book on Micah’s text from a Catholic publisher is Micah  by Julia O’Brien. This book appears in the Wisdom Commentary Series of Liturgical Press. WCS is the first collection of scripture commentaries researched entirely by women scholars and theologians. WCS is an ecumenical venture, as are most major commentary series today.
Face Book photo is mine, featuring The Paulist Biblical Commentary and the New American Bible, 1991 edition.
Perhaps it is the ambiance of viewing the Mass in my own home that I find myself keying in on the Scriptures with more intensity. For one thing, since I own the remote control, I control the volume, no small consideration when you hear with only one ear. But more to the point, I have come away with a greater appreciation of the writing of 1 Peter. I wrote in the last post how 1 Peter, proclaimed at Mass on the Sunday after Easter, was probably an instruction to the newly baptized, and as such, is a particularly good example of post-Apostolic catechesis. I was not aware last month that 1 Peter was the designated source for all the second readings Sundays of Easter in the A Cycle. If you live in dioceses that celebrate the Feast of the Ascension on Thursday this week, you will hear yet another selection from 1 Peter next week.
2 Peter is not, I repeat, is not a continuation of the book you have heard proclaimed over the past weekends of Easter, nor does it share the same author. If 1 Peter shares the Christian’s wisdom of the baptismal change of the newly concerted, 2 Peter is a general letter to all Christians in local communities to root themselves in the unspeakable glory, wisdom, and love of God with his divine Son, while at the same time decrying the evils in the world and the treachery of false teachers from within their midst.
Neither 1 Peter nor 2 Peter were written by that Peter, the senior of the Twelve, but rather by two later teachers and leaders who adopted the pseudonym of the great Peter, a common practice in antiquity. In the Paulist Biblical Commentary, scholar Sherri Brown observes that the letter may have originated in Rome [hence the pseudonym Peter] or in Asia Minor, as the author makes multiple allusions to the theology of St. Paul’s writings. The author’s dependence upon the Gospels and the Letter of Jude make clear that the letter was written long after St. Peter’s death and belongs to a collection of pastoral instructions to churches that were gathered in the early second century.
The “canonicity” of 2 Peter [i.e., whether it belonged in the canon or collection of inspired books of revelation we know as the New Testament] was a matter of considerable debate. The first Church historian, Eusebius, questioned the letter’s inspiration in 324 A.D. Despite that, the letter remained in the Scripture through the present day, though as Brown discusses in a “special issues” segment, modern scholarship has not always been kind to the book. It has been called “a weak minor epistle” or even—and this is harsh— “the ugly stepchild of the New Testament.” [p. 1546]
I found the text both inspiring and intriguing. Chapter One focuses on the glory of God and the unspeakable promise that “you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire.” He goes on into a litany that is both instructional and poetic. “For this reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue//virtue with knowledge//knowledge with self-control//self-control with endurance//endurance with devotion//devotion with mutual affection//mutual affection with love.” [1:5-7] This summation of a godly life is the kind of thing you tape to your bathroom mirror as a daily offering of focus, an act of faith and a rule of conduct. In 1:16ff the author recounts his life in the faith as he apparently believes he close to death. He argues that Christians receive faith not by “cleverly devised myths” but by the very testimony of God on behalf of his Son, Jesus, when the Father declared “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This quote is borrowed from the Gospels’ Transfiguration witness on a high mountain.
The author is clearly disturbed that certain individuals, probably in places of authority in the local churches, are seriously distorting the basic heart of the Christian message, and he reminds the community that the Spirit, and not imaginative individuals, are the source of truthful teaching. But it is in Chapter Two that we learn about these troublesome figures; they are “false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will introduce destructive heresies and even deny the Master who ransomed them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.” As this chapter unfolds, we get the picture that the challenge comes from within the churches, as noted above, and from an amoral Roman society. There is no indication of persecution here, but a conflict to capture the thoughts and conduct of a believing mind.
The bulk of Chapter two is a history of unfaithfulness, evil teaching, and perversion, and how God punished in response. Most of the examples are drawn from the Hebrew Scripture—the fallen angels, Noah’s countrymen, Sodom and Gomorrah. But the internal “heretics” are his primary targets, speaking of those who “revile things they do not understand.” [2:12] He gives equal attention to libertines and heretics. The closing lines of Chapter Two certainly hold attention: “What is expressed in the true proverb has happened to them, ‘the dog returns to its own vomit’ and ‘a bathed sow returns to wallowing in the mire.’” [2:22]
The Third Chapter unveils what might also have touched off turmoil in the churches, specifically the delay in the Second Coming. The “scoffers” as the author calls them are harassing the faithful for awaiting an event that was long expected and has yet to arrive. Part of the problem is the primitive nature of sacramental theology to that time; St. Luke’s Gospel, for example, addresses this problem by explaining that the Lord Jesus remains in the breaking of the bread. [See Luke 24: 13-35.] Without compromising his belief that the judgment at Christ’s coming will be an awful thing to experience, the author explains that if God is delaying, it is because he “is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” [3:9] This is an insightful piece of advice. He returns in the final paragraph to an exhortation to holiness, to the apocalyptic style we are familiar seeing at the end of the Catholic Church Year in late November.
Brown observes that this and several other brief New Testament letters form a useful collection that circled through the general Church at the beginning of the second century. In varying styles these letters buttress the solemn revelation of the Gospels for the diverse Christian churches stretching from the Middle East through Asia Minor and of course the Roman peninsula. If their context is understood, most of these letters—including 2 Peter—have an enduring capacity to cut to the chase on the heart of Christian living.
Sunday, April 19 marked the end of the Easter Octave, a continuous eight-day intensive liturgical celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection. The Feast of Christmas has a similar eight-day octave. The concept of “octave” is more evident for those who attend daily Mass, where all the Easter Gospel narratives are proclaimed sequentially through the week. Those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours daily use the solemn form of the prayers and psalms. The Sunday after Easter [now known as the Second Sunday of Easter since 1969] is a day rich in tradition, as it was and is the final day of the Octave. In my youth the Sunday after Easter was known as “Low Sunday.”
The name “Low Sunday,” at its heart, probably has a psychological basis, implying that the week of festivities has drawn to a close and the time has come for Christians, particularly the newly baptized, to get to the hard work of preaching and evangelizing. The official Latin name for this eighth day was Dominica in albis depositis, “the Sunday for removing the white [Baptismal] robes.” The theme of Baptism was always a major part of the Octave liturgies. The new Roman Missal  extends the Octave mood over seven weeks, to include the Ascension and, on the final day of the Easter Season, Pentecost.
History gives us some insights into how the post Easter Sunday life of the Church was celebrated ritually. Although the catechumens receive much of the attention then and today, the Church envisioned the Baptismal action as a joint one for both the new and the veteran Christians. And as the white baptismal gowns are put aside, the final stage of the Baptismal process began, a period referred to as the mystagogia. The mystagogia was and is a period of intense reflection on the sacraments just celebrated, the cleansing of baptismal water, the passing on of the Holy Spirit, and the first eating and drinking of the Lord’s Body and Blood. [See Peg Ekerdt’s observations on parish mystagogia here.] The opening antiphon of last Sunday’s Mass, written around 100 A.D., sums up the experience of mystagogia well. “Like newborn children you should thirst for milk, on which your spirit can grow to strength, alleluia.” [1 Peter 2:2]
The antiphon comes from the very brief New Testament book, First Peter. There is a companion letter, Second Peter, which we will address in another post in this series. Looking at last Sunday’s Liturgy, the above cited antiphon and the Second Reading of the Mass indicates that in the weekend Mass after Easter 1 Peter enjoys a place of prominence, though the depiction of Doubting Thomas from John’s Gospel probably stays with the listener in a more affective sense. Peter’s words from the second reading of Sunday’s Mass compliment John’s narrative quite well. Both are addressed to hesitant believers and remind them of their holy nature, rendered by God through Baptism. Both are words of encouragement and power to hearers surrounded by persecutors and an unredeemed world. Both recall the hearers to their mission, to live and work in the World as Christ in the flesh, a vocation for which Baptism has transformed them.
Are St. Peter and the author of 1 Peter the same person? The author identifies himself as Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, and there is consensus that the letter is intended to carry the importance of one who was close to Jesus. There are several instances in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures where a book may carry the title of a famous leader while the actual writing and editorial shaping was undertaken by a close disciple or even a community of believers; this is most evident in the books attributed to the Apostle John. It is worth noting that in the fourth century, when the collection of books for the New Testament Canon was completed, the two letters of Peter were included in the body of Revelation.
The introduction to 1 Peter found in the NABRE translation explains the authorship question well. The letter is addressed to Christians—apparently recently baptized—in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, all territories in modern day Turkey, an exceptionally long distance from Rome. As the letter describes persecutions, modern day historians have attempted to pin down a period of governmental assault on Christians in this territory and have found little. The Emperor Trajan issued a surviving instruction to the Bithynian governor, Pliny the Younger, in 110 A.D. to condemn confessed Christians but not to exert himself nor listen to spies. Roman persecutions did not become empire-wide till the Emperor Decius [249-251 A.D.] As with the Jews, Christians seemed to have suffered most from local outbursts of fanaticism focused against their lifestyle and survival. Thus, the dating of this letter remains somewhat in doubt, though the later the dating, the less likely St. Peter is the original author.
There is another literary aspect of 1 Peter that suggests this work is not the sole product of a single Galilean fisherman. The Paulist Commentary calls 1 Peter “one of the most polished Greek texts in the New Testament.” [Even the best English translations such as the NABRE cannot do full justice to the nuances of the Greek.] Moreover, the author’s command of the Greek language is without equal. There is a term for a word that is used only once in a literary collection: hapax. 1 Peter contains 66 examples of hapax, more than the rest of the New Testament combined. Some scholars have theorized that the actual author of 1 Peter is Silvanus; in 1 Peter 5:12 Peter states: “Through Silvanus, whom I consider a faithful brother, I have written this short letter.” The Paulist commentator, Bernardo Estrada, favors a Peter-Silvanus joint effort but admits that other hypotheses and dating issues must be consulted.
A strong case can be made that 1 Peter incorporates an early written sermon-instruction to the newly baptized. It is a combination of doctrinal and moral instruction. The first section is a summary of Baptism: God has given a new birth into a living hope. Writing to communities under outside pressure, the nature of baptism—its infusion of a new life and a promise of glory beyond the grave—is a reminder that surviving persecution or facing the sword will both lead to a glorious finale in the fullness of God’s presence. Persecution literature often contains elements of apocalyptic, a mysterious end time when all unknowns will be revealed.
1 Peter continues with emphasis upon one’s “election by God,” that one has been called out of the world of darkness, a term often applied to the Roman Empire in the later New Testament. This letter does not enter the thorny Reformation question of predestination, i.e., that God calls some and not others. Borrowing the Hebrew Scriptural understanding of morality, 1 Peter describes the baptismal life as one of strict personal holiness. “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” At the end of time stands the God of all grace to call them to his eternal glory in Christ. 1 Peter includes the Gentiles as among those called by God into what is termed “The People of God.” Two millennia later, the Council Vatican II would describe the family of the Church as “the people of God” in its teaching documents [along with “the pilgrim people of God.”]
The key theological teaching of 1 Peter is “the presentation of Jesus Christ as the model of righteous suffering. The second of two hymns embedded in the work “urges the audience to endure suffering, even unjust suffering, ‘for Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” [Paulist Commentary, p. 1536]
The Letter known as John 3 is the briefest of the three epistles attributed to “John.” Only the Letter to Jude rivals this text in brevity in the New Testament. Given that it has been a while since our last post on this stream, I had some opportunity to look at very recent scholarship on the entire body of literature under the name of John. There are five books in the New Testament under the name of John:
 the Gospel, of course;
 1 John Letter;
 2 John Letter;
 3 John Letter [today’s post]; and
 The Book of Revelation.
Toan Do’s excellent essay on the Johannine literature in The Paulist Biblical Commentary  summarizes recent scholarship on the three letters of John. [pp. 1551-1566]. It is fascinating to me, an old catechetical war horse, to see the evolution of thinking about John in my lifetime. In the PBC commentary, To observes that until the nineteenth century the Church simply assumed everything under the name of John was written by John. By the time I arrived in grad school in 1971 with my high hopes and lunch in my briefcase [no backpacks then], there was a strong consensus that the Book of Revelation was written by a different author utilizing an apocalyptic [futuristic] vision for a persecuted people.
During much of my professional life the dean of Johannine study was the American priest, Father Raymond Brown. An immensely gifted researcher and writer, Brown put forward the thesis that the early Church featured a division between those who acknowledged Peter as the center of the Church, on the one hand, and followers of “the beloved disciple” on the other. Brown summarized his theory in his 1979 The Community of the Beloved Disciple, an eminently readable text and easy to obtain today. Today’s students of John illustrate that we are not certain of precisely who John is. The Synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] only identify John as, with James, “the sons of thunder” whereas the Gospel of John identifies “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
The best we can say with historical probability is that a “school of John” arose with a rich theology of Jesus and the Church. Apart from Revelation, all the John writings reflect a portrait of Jesus who is truly God and truly man. Consider the first chapter of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word….” The latest Gospel, John’s first chapter is possibly a salvo in a theological war of ideas, as multiple sources attest to a heresy in the early Church which denied the humanity of Christ. It is possible, too, that all the Johannine literature bears Greek influence as the Church expanded into Turkey and Greece. Legend has it that after Good Friday the Apostle John took Jesus’ mother to live in Ephesus in modern day Turkey.
The literature of John carries a constant message of the necessity of love. This may be another indication of the Greek influence in the early Church which many members felt important to protect and practice as the principal imitation of Christ. Greek thinkers identified two forms of love: eros, or possessive love, and agape, a total giving of one’s self for the other. John’s Gospel seizes the definition of agape, as in Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper, an episode which is not mentioned in the other Gospels.
This, then, is the backdrop of 3 John, which appears to be a product of the “Johannine wing” of the Church. This third letter was included in the Biblical Canon of Revelation by the early fourth century, and was cited by earlier bishops and saints of the Church from the early 100’s. The unknown author identifies himself as “an elder,” which may indicate he was a regionally respected exemplar of fidelity and teaching authority. The letter is addressed to one individual, Gaius, a friend of the elder. Gaius, it seems, is somewhat beleaguered by the teachings and behaviors of other visible members of his local church.
The elder boosts his spirits, noting that “the truth is in you,” a cause of personal rejoicing. The author feels no need in this letter to identify the tenets of the truth; both men assume they are one in fidelity to the truth of Jesus, i.e., that he is God and man. The elder evidently has other connections with this church, as he references a recent visit from Gaius’ town from other brethren. Perhaps it is from them that he learns of the problems Gaius is confronting. The brethren report that many in their community are “walking in truth” and “living genuinely” [i.e., in a spirit of agape.]
The elder encourages Gaius to keep doing what he is doing and encourages him to extend hospitality and support to friends like the elder and strangers alike. Ministers of the Gospel were highly dependent upon support of the places they visited but had learned through hard experience that unconverted Gentiles were not likely to help them much. The elder promises to send another elder, Demetrius, to assist Gaius in a brewing battle with another member of his community, Diotrephes. It is not clear precisely what lie at the heart of this local theological crisis. The NABRE Bible suggests that Diotrephes was an old-guard believer who distrusted the elder in his efforts to consolidate his authority. This may reflect the changing governance of the Church at the end of the first century, when charismatic and independent ministry began passing to the oversight of bishops. The elder, though, notes the pride of Diotrephes and his withdrawal from the mainstream of the local community.
In any event, the elder has surmised that Diotrephes was a threat to the agape that held the early churches together. He does not believe that excommunication would be helpful [perhaps Diotrephes had his own following]; he hoped instead that the errors of this discontent would be evident if Gaius and others taught and lived “the way,” the idiom used for fidelity to the life and will of Jesus. In concluding, the elder determines the problem with Diotrephes would not be solved by letter. “Instead, I hope to see you soon, when we can talk face to face. Peace be with you. The friends greet you; greet the friends there each by name.”
When you talk about the shortest books of the Bible, the Second Letter of John in the New Testament must be a magnet of attention. 2 John consists of one chapter, which in turn consists of four modest paragraphs. The First Letter of John, by contrast, consists of five chapters; see the preceding post on this stream. My initial reaction to the study of this letter led me to think that this tiny snippet, along with the equally short Third Letter of John, were included in the New Testament Canon primarily because of the identification of the author as the “Apostle John” or one or more of his closest disciples in the writings of early Church sources.
However, the content of these three letters together contributes a considerable amount in the development of the Church and its Tradition. The most recent research I have at my fingertips, To Doan’s introduction to the three letters of John in The Paulist Biblical Commentary , indicates that we still know very little about the authors of the entire library attributed to the Apostle John, including the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation. This did not seem to trouble the early bishops who inserted the Letters of John into the New Testament Canon. The content of the letters themselves treat of the nature of Christ, the errant followers or early heretics, the Antichrist, and the daily morality of a people baptized into the life of God, who is love.
2 John, like its companion pieces, was most likely written in Western Turkey [then marked on maps as Asia Minor] late in the first century. Turkey is a far piece from Jerusalem, which had been leveled by the Romans in 70 A.D., and Rome, where the Christian Church was setting roots, despite intermittent persecutions, to establish a general evangelization to the entire empire. Thus, Turkey, isolated from Roman and Palestinian culture, was significantly influenced by Greek thought. Think for a moment of St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:23: “Jews demand signs and Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…”
For a moment, let’s concentrate on why Christians were persecuted in their missionary efforts. Roman persecution was easy to understand. Roman emperors were considered gods, and the Christian refusal to venerate the emperors was interpreted as treason and punished accordingly, if not constantly. Jewish persecution, until the fall of Jerusalem, rested upon the idea that to equate the crucified Jesus of Nazareth to the Lord Yahweh, whose very name was forbidden to pronounce—was blasphemy to the ultimate degree.
But further to the East, as Christians settled in Greece and Turkey, they encountered the rich world of Greek philosophy, the land of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, whose bodies of work were produced a few centuries before Christ. Aristotle, known simply through Church history as “The Philosopher,” would inspire St. Thomas Aquinas in the 1200’s A.D. to put forward the Catholic structure of thought we still find today in the Catechism and other standard texts.
Greek thought from this era is notable for its “metaphysics,” a term which roughly means “that which comes after physics.” Put another way, metaphysics is the science of drawing mental conclusions of reality from what we can see and experience in the material world. In one sense the Greeks opened a gulf between a material world and a world beyond visibility, a principle that reality is composed of matter and spirit. Because of Greek thought, the Church would be able to develop a religious anthropology in what a human being possessed a body and a soul. Without the Greeks, we would still think of a person as a unitary creature whose death was the end of human essence.
Two things happened when the early Christians, mostly Jewish converts, began to encounter the Greek world. The Greek questioned how the metaphysical god of total otherness could be identified with the human Jesus of Nazareth. St. Paul’s sermon at the altar of the unknown god [Acts 17:23] tackles this conflict head on, but his Greek hearers replied “we should like to hear you on this some other time,” as polite a brush-off as one finds in the bible. The second challenge faced by Christians in Greek lands was an infiltration of pseudo-Christians who carried misbegotten metaphysical notions about Jesus that, taken together, denied the pillar of salvation possibility: the Incarnation. God, they reasoned, could not become man.
2 John is a letter written by an elder [presbyteros] from another Christian assembly to people he knows well, calling them “the chosen Lady and to her children,” emphasizing the truth that dwells within them, that Christ is one with the eternal Father. He commends the fact that some of the children [members] are walking in the truth. He reminds them of the necessity of loving one another, not as a new teaching, but as something that has been the cornerstone of every teaching they have received.
But all is not well. The elder is distressed. In 2 John 1:7 he warns against the antichrist, an apocalyptic figure who will mislead many just before the Second Coming, which evidently was expected soon. But in 2 John 1:9 the elder becomes more specific, and he commands this local church to reject “progressives” from among its membership. Goodbye Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren? Perhaps some bishops would favor that today, but, the elder is referring to a brand of Christian teaching which held that the man Jesus Christ would “progress” on to a higher metaphysical plane. Such corrupted teachers could not bring themselves to believe that Jesus could be both God and man, which is the heart of orthodox Christology.
An error like this one arises from a belief that matter is evil, and only the metaphysical [or “spiritual”] is good and true. This is a contradiction of the Hebrew accounts of creation, where God looked out over everything he created and saw that it was good. Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si addresses the sacredness of God’s creation in our own time. If matter is evil, then the human Jesus is evil and unworthy of our faith. Unfortunately, denial of Christ’s humanity had a long shelf life. In the days of 2 John such heresy would have multiple names and forms, such as Docetism and Gnosticism. In the fourth century the heresy, under the name of Arianism, would prompt the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea [325 A.D.], which produced the Nicene Creed we proclaim every Sunday.
One reason 2 John is so brief is the elder’s pledge to personally visit this community shortly to elaborate his concern, perhaps to correct in-house error, and to extend the love of his own Christian community to them.
Our first foray into the “little books” of the Bible will take us into the New Testament Epistles of John, of which there are three distinct letters. I can recall as a grad student in the early 1970’s that one of the most hotly debated subjects in our biblical courses and in the scholarly literature of the day involved the identity of the author [more likely, authors] of the five books of the New Testament which carried the name of John—i.e., the Gospel, Revelation, and the three distinct letters. The similarities of thought between the Gospel and the epistles led many—not all-scholars to hypothesize that early Christianity experienced something of a split between followers of Peter and followers of “the beloved disciple.” For centuries “the beloved disciple” was believed to be the Apostle John himself, but Scriptural evidence identifying John the son of Zebedee with the beloved disciple is sketchy at best. John 21:15f seems to attempt to solve some kind of rift between Peter and the beloved disciple, or between their followers.
Using the eyeball test, that is, reading the Gospel of John and the Letters of John straight through, one can see an affinity between the Gospel and the Letters, though the theory of a separate community is not as strongly embraced today as it was half a century ago. The Biblical scholar Toan Do wrote the commentary on John’s Letters for The Paulist Biblical Commentary  and in his introduction Do writes this: “”A sound explanation is that the Johannine Epistles were composed separately [from the Gospel] and were circulated for both personal and communal reading among the churches.” [PBC, p. 1552] Do puts the date of composition of the Gospel around 95 AD and the letters between 100 and 110 AD. The consensus of scholarship places the composition of these letters in Asia Minor, specifically western Turkey.
Whether the Apostle John, or another apostle, or a scribe of John’s finished the Gospel, the Church has always considered the Gospel of Apostolic inspiration, and thus the Epistles as inspired commentaries of the theology of the Gospel. This body of literature places special emphasis upon themes vital to Church identity, the priority of love and the fact that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine. The two great doctrines around which our tradition is built were coming to fruition and understanding in the Johannine era, i.e., the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Curiously, the harder of the two proved to be the Incarnation. There were wholesale defections or schisms which plagued the early Church, most of them dealing with the mistaken notion that Jesus was a “faux human,” a divinity who only appeared to be a man.
In Greek the verb for “to demonstrate” or “to show” is doceo, and eventually the heresy known today as Docetism argues in various ways that those who claimed to have seen Christ in his flesh were viewing a projection, so to speak, rather than a human like us in all things but sin, bound by the limits of space and time. Docetism in its raw form renders Jesus’ crucifixion useless and helpless in the forgiveness of sin on the grounds that the perfect sacrifice on Calvary never really happened.
The other heresy which plagued the infant Church along with Docetism was Gnosticism, from the Greek word for “knowledge.” Gnosticism was already in circulation as a philosophy before the birth of Christ, holding that material things are evil and only mystical spiritual realities were true. In its Christian iteration, only “sacred knowledge” shared with the chosen had the power to save. The idea of matter=evil percolated into Catholic thought long after the Johannine era, impacting St. Augustine’s teachings on sexuality four centuries after Christ.
As among the last writings of the New Testament in terms of date of composition, the letters of John squared off with the established enemies of the Apostolic Tradition, both from within and outside the Church. The author or authors of these letters thus labored with a two-front challenge: to defend and enforce the holiness of the Church while protecting it from errors of thought and practice. 1 John 1:1-4 bears a striking similarity to the beginning of John’s Gospel, emphasizing the visibility of the Word [God] multiple times and affirming fellowship among fellow believers.
In 1 John 1: 5-10, the author speaks of God as light; he equates true Christian faith with a conduct of walking always in light. Verses 6 and 7 speak of the importance of living in light, i.e., believing what the Church believes. To acknowledge one’s sins, in this context sins of disbelief, enables us to enjoy the saving fellowship of the church assembly, the body that has been cleansed by “the blood of his Son, Jesus….” This is a sweep at the Gnostic/Docetic element who spread division in the Church and denied the power of Christ’s blood to save. Many commentators believe that this letter, 1 John, was intended as a teaching statement for the general Christian Church, with the other two letters directed to specific communities.
Chapter 2 continues the theme of Christ’s blood [i.e., his full human sacrifice on the cross] as redemptive in saving us from sin and darkness. The author uses language similar to John’s Gospel: “The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments.” As Do explains, Chapter 2 emphasizes the closeness of Jesus to his followers, beginning the section with the invocation, “my children.” The closeness of the church is wounded, in the author’s mind, when even one member sins by deviating from the command of God to love one another. Unlike the Gnostics, the true Christian believer’s fidelity is a commitment to love his neighbor and seek the forgiveness won by Christ in his flesh. There is no “secret key” restricted to a few, and one will be judged by conduct in the here and now, in flesh and bones.
The author does use the term “world” with varied nuances. The saving forgiveness of the Father is extended to the whole world, but in Chapter 2 the believer is urged not to “join the world,” which stands in need of forgiveness. The Gospel and Letters share a feeling of the temporary nature of this world; in the Passion narrative of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world.” The author of the Gospel uses the parallel of day and night as a literary device to make this distinction. Judas leaves the Last Supper “at night” to betray Jesus. The Samaritan woman, by contrast, finds faith at high noon. These Letters carry something of this motif into their teaching.
The final three chapters of 1 John speak of a love ethic. Chapter 3 is sobering on this point, calling to mind the murder of Abel by Cain to show the violent excesses resulting where brother hates brother, instead of the other way around. Chapter 4 addresses “the testing of spirits,” an idiom for the ideas and practices of a Christian community. The author provides a rule of thumb in discerning thoughts and deeds: “every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ come into the flesh belongs to God.”
Chapter 5 repeats and reemphasizes much of what has been said before. We can guess that the author believed these basic themes needed repeating, having seen repeated disunity in the community and constant denial of the power of God to save his children through the blood of Christ. Christian communities at the end of the first century were for the most part small islands of believer struggling not just to preach to the strange worlds around them, but to clarify what it was that kept them united and courageous in the first place.
In last week’s “Things Biblical” stream on the Café blog, I touched upon the formation of the Biblical canon [admittedly in broad strokes], specifically how the Church collectively defined the “library” of sacred books containing the entirety of God’s revelation. The formation of the Canon/Scripture was a long and arduous task for both the Jewish and Christian traditions. It may surprise you that the final binding pronouncement of the New Testament books was not formally proclaimed until the Catholic Council of Trent [1545-1563], though by this time the list of the 27 New Testament books was an accepted fact for about a millennium. Trent also established the Jewish Canon or Old Testament at 45 books for Christian usage; Luther, in translating the bible into German, had omitted several Jewish books a few decades before Trent’s deliberations. Hence the expression “Catholic Bible vs. Protestant Bible.”
It is remarkable to stand back and look at the full canon of the Judeo-Christian bible and consider that each work was selected for a reason under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The theological principles underlying the selection process for the New Testament appear to have been  Apostolicity, the belief that the sacred authors were faithfully rendering the actual teachings of Jesus as heard and conveyed by the Apostles;  doctrinal soundness, or coordination with developing beliefs within the Church, such as the full human nature of Christ; and  liturgical usage and circulation, i.e., the texts were commonly used in Eucharistic celebrations and preaching.
If you sat down with a piece of paper and listed every book of the Bible you could name, how well would you do? If you could recall 20, you would be close to three-quarters short. The Gospels, of course, capture our attention, as well they should. But our ancestors in faith included 68 other books. Some are long and majestic, others amazingly terse. What I am going to do next is list the books of the Bible by length, specifically the number of chapters in each. [If you see a book you’ve never heard of, click this link to the USCCB Bible site and then click the book for a brief introduction.]
36 2 Chronicles
31 1 Samuel
29 1 Chronicles
25 2 Kings
24 2 Samuel
22 1 Kings
16 1 Maccabees
15 2 Maccabees
8 Song of Songs
28 Acts of the Apostles
21 John [Gospel]
16 Letter to Romans
16 1 Letter to Corinthians
13 2 Letter to Corinthians
13 Letter to Hebrews
6 Letter to Galatians
6 Letter to Ephesians
6 1 Letter to Timothy
5 1 Letter to Thessalonians
5 Letter of James
5 1 Letter of Peter
5 1 Letter of John
4 Letter to Philippians
4 Letter to Colossians
4 2 Letter to Timothy
3 2 Letter to Thessalonians
3 Letter to Titus
3 2 Letter of Peter
1 Letter to Philemon
1 2 Letter of John
1 3 Letter of John
1 Letter of Jude
It is true that the larger works—for example, the Law Books and the major prophets in the Hebrew Canon, and the Gospels and St. Paul’s Letters in the New Testament canon—tend to lay out the panorama of God’s plan in a majestic sweep. But the smaller texts contribute mightily to the unified message of salvation, and for this reason I propose to spend the next several months looking at the “smallest” texts, those under ten chapters. In no particular order, let me cite the advantages of studying these texts, with their usefulness in grasping the full message of the Bible and introducing new students of the Bible to its styles and ways of teaching.
 The small texts are easy to handle if you are just starting an adult study on your own. The Prophet Obadiah runs to a mere twenty-one verses. Within that limited framework the reader can see one of the general themes of prophetic preaching, that God’s enemies will be eventually be crushed and that a glorious “day of the Lord” will come set things right.
 The small texts provide a window into Christian attempts to live faithfully. The three Letters of John reiterate the message of John’s Gospel that the greatest gift of God is love, personified in the person of Jesus Christ. These letters press the point that love of Christians for one another is the highest moral imperative.
 The small texts give us a taste of how the Church addressed its internal problems, how moral reasoning developed. Paul’s Letter to Philemon discusses a runaway slave named Onesimus. Paul evidently had baptized Onesimus and now found himself in the dilemma of whether to send him back to his owner, another Christian.
 The small texts can give insight into the development of doctrine and how true belief was separated from error. A major problem for the post-apostolic Church was wholesale belief that Jesus was not truly a man but only appeared to be. Our belief in the Incarnation was solidified by writers such as John, who in his letters refuted Christians who held such beliefs.
 Some smaller works established balance in the early Church’s theological teaching. In Romans 5 Paul establishes that we are justified only by the direct gift of God, and not by our own works. In the brief Letter of James [2:14ff] the author responds that “if someone says he has faith but does not have works…can that faith save him?” The Church, in its wisdom, retained both works in its repository of faith.
 Some small works branch into a variety of forms, including satire. Thus it is with Jonah, a psychological profile that speaks volumes of later Israel’s ideas about the role of prophesy and the men who filled it.
Some of these works we can cover in one Tuesday’s post. With others we will take the time we need. By my counting, there are 29 biblical works of under ten chapters in the entire bible. My primary source will be The Paulist Biblical Commentary , though I will use other commentaries and cite them with links if your interests take you further. The PBC runs to about 1700 pages and presently costs about $100, give or take. It is not necessary for our purposes here to own one, but if you are involved in ministry, it is not a bad investment, for every book in the Bible is treated in the PBC and you would not have to purchase individual commentaries on each book unless you plan on going on to higher studies…which I hope some of you would.
It is hard to believe today, but prior to Vatican II the general pastoral advice regarding lay persons reading the Bible was almost excessively cautionary. Our family Bible held a hallowed if underutilized place in my home as a youth. Catholic Bible publishers then and today provide a middle section of the bible where the owner’s family genealogy and sacramental records could be recorded. I believe our bible also contained our birth certificates. The thinking, I guess, was that important documents could be safely hidden in a book that no one would disturb. [If you remember the movie “Going My Way” , the old pastor Father Fitzgibbons hid his liquor behind his library of President Grant biographies.]
No priest that I can recall ever recommended reading the Bible straight up. As a rule, the only public Gospel readings one would encounter were those texts selected for Sunday Mass. My copy of a Tridentine Missal from the 1950’s states that after the Gospel “The sermon or instruction to the congregation is given.” Some priests did use the starting point of their sermons as the Gospel text of the day; it was more common to hear instruction on Christian duty, such as the need for Confession, for example. One year in my parish all three priests combined to devote a large portion of the year to a study of the Creed, one line per week. As the years have rolled along, I look back at the “Creed series” with a growing respect, an imaginative way to expand the Catholic mind with an effort to incorporate creedal statements with their biblical origins.
That said, pastoral caution over independent reading of the Bible makes more sense when one considers that the cultural gap between middle eastern language, mores, and expression, on the one hand, and the Greek-Roman thought world of western Europe, is huge. Simply arriving at a “mindset of the Bible” for a new reader is a near impossibility when working only with the text. Another point of difference is the blunt literary expression of the Judean and Christian tradition between the time of composition and today’s novice readers; pious ears in Catholic households in my elementary school years did not take easily to the many graphic portrayals of sins, natural catastrophes, war, and wanton violence, though our Christian ancestors were right at home with this depiction of life’s grim realities. And lest I forget, there is a lot of “knowing” and “begetting” in the Hebrew Canon on the Bible [“knowing,” in English translations, is synonymous with sexual intercourse.]
But aside from these considerations was the reality that even at the highest levels of Church authority the Bible was poorly understood and even regarded with some suspicion, as the Protestant Reformation adherents referred to themselves as “the people of the book” and had championed the cause of sola scriptura, “by Scripture alone is man saved.” Protestants accused the Catholic Church of spinning off many of its rites and disciplines without enough Biblical basis, or any basis, in the case of indulgences. In popular catechetics of my youth, it was stated in so many words that Protestant worship and practice contented itself with the Bible and sermon while Roman Catholics enjoyed full communion with Christ in reception of the Eucharist. If you are following the Reformation stream here at the Café, you can better appreciate that one of Luther’s major theological missteps was a poor appreciation of the linkage of the Word and the Christianity in the formation of both Bible and Church.
What Christians of all stripes seem to forget is that the origins of the New Testament and the Church are intertwined. It was inspired Church thinkers who composed the 27 books of the NT, and later Church leaders who determined which books belonged in the “canon” or collection of sacred revelation deeded sufficient for salvation. Consequently, it is impossible to live by the maxim sola scriptura just as it is impossible to live by the maxim sola ecclesia or “church alone.” A more detailed account of the formation of the New Testament canon is available in such works as The Canon of Scripture [2018 edition] by F.F. Bruce, for the ambitious reader. Other introductions to the Bible will include questions of authorship, intention of the author, and incorporation for each book of the canons as well.
The Catholic Church never believed itself independent of the Bible. It believed from earliest times that its holy leaders [many known, some not] received inspiration from God to produce Gospels, letters, history, and apocalyptic [end-of-world] literature that embodied the memory and message from God through his son, Jesus Christ. The written books of the New Testament are the third stage in a developmental process now considered normative in Catholic education. Stage  is the actual presence of Jesus upon the earth and the impression memories of his earliest followers of Jesus’ words and deeds. This stage would include the impressions of faith in encounters with the Risen Christ. Stage  is the oral preaching of Jesus’ witnesses, first to Jerusalem and Judaea and then to Gentiles. Stage  is the composition of written works for circulation to the growing Church, a process that began with Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians in c. 51 A.D. and probably extended into the early part of the second century. The first written Gospel, that of St. Mark, appeared around 70 A.D.
The Church through the centuries has employed several means of interpreting the New Testament. One might think the most obvious method is literalism, i.e., simply assuming everything in print is historically accurate and applying it as such. But even a superficial reading of the Gospels would demonstrate the shortcomings of such a method, something observed by the earliest Church fathers. The Gospels frequently report the same events in quite different ways, most notably the infancy narratives [Mark and John have none], and the Passion and Resurrection accounts. Very early on the Church learned to extract the critical story lines and eventual doctrinal truths from the inspired genius of the four authors.
The Church utilized analogies from the Hebrew Scripture or Old Testament and applied them to preaching and explaining the meaning of Christ. For a brief summary of these interpretive tools, follow this link to the Oxford Biblical Studies on-line. It is interesting that even before modern biblical studies blossomed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Church art had developed icons and symbols to explain the revelation and teaching thrusts of each Gospel and Evangelist.
One of the earliest and greatest works of the Church was sorting out which literature of the day belonged in a “sacred canon” that would come to be known as the New Testament. In many respects this task was thrust upon the Church by the varieties of erroneous or heretical teachers. The most notable danger to the Church was the heretic Marcion, who denied that the entire Hebrew Scripture was divinely inspired. Church fathers thus began to sift the wheat from the chaff, beginning around 180 A.D. The criteria for a book’s inclusion into the New Testament appear to be its fidelity to the teaching of the Apostles, its use in Christian liturgy, and testimony from bishops and elders.
What is notable in the establishment of the New Testament Canon is the involvement of the entire Church in cooperating with the Holy Spirit toward the formation of the written corpus of Christian truth. The Bible—both Testaments—are communal books, and the communities who arrange their lives, beliefs, and worship around the sacred books have long traditions of study and experience in penetrating the meanings, studies that continue intensely in our own day. It is important, then, that the Bible be read in the context of its tradition, i.e., its faith community. I am not calling for sectarianism; in 1943 Pope Pius XII opened the doors for Catholic biblical scholars to join their Protestant colleagues in developing more accurate translations of the Bible in multiple languages, utilizing the many fragments of Scripture then available around the world.
To read the bible in a solitary stance is to leave the best portions of the divine banquet of revelation on the table. One reads profitably who reads with the guidance of church tradition, history, and scholarship. I would be the first to admit that present day catechetics for youth and adults falls far short of providing the assistance that we need to be offering. At the present time I am reading The Epistles of John by J. Howard Marshall for a Café post in the very near future. In the opening words of 2 John, the sacred author speaks of love as the identifying mark of the true believer. Read cold, the invocation of “love” sounds repetitious. Isn’t love something of a presupposition of the Bible?
But Dr. Marshall examines the specialized use of the word “love” across the five New Testament books that carry the name of John, and gradually the word and what it implies takes on a depth and vision that to me, at least, has captured my spiritual imagination and focused my religious experience over the past week. Seeking the Word of God is work, probably more work than we are used to investing. But this should give us pause, too. What is it we have passed off for meeting God until now?
Very shortly the Tuesday Stream of the Café will carry the banner “The Little Tiny Books of the Bible,” those texts like John’s epistles above that are frequently overlooked but which are considered part of the saving canon of sacred books.
Also, the Friday Book Club stream of the Café will carry more reviews for those engaged in adult study of the Bible.
This weekend marks the Feast of Pentecost, since 1970 designating the concluding day of the Easter Season. The formal end of Eastertide is Second Vespers, or Sunday evening prayer (June 9 this year). The dating of the Solemnity of Pentecost for most of the Church’s history—50 days after Easter—is determined in large part from the calendar of events laid out by St. Luke in his Acts of the Apostles, though not quite with the precision we learned as youths.
Many New Testament sources testify that Jesus spent time with the apostles before his ascent into glory. Luke specifies forty days between Easter and the Ascension, but an indeterminate time of prayer and waiting on the part of the apostles alone until the dramatic descent of the Spirit described in Acts 2. The numeral “forty” is a literary idiom for a generic period. Genesis describes the rains of the great flood as “forty days and forty nights;” the wandering of the Hebrews is described as “forty years,” and Jesus’ fast in the desert a similar forty days. And before we go too far into numerical significance, recall that in St. John’s Gospel Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit from the cross as he died, and again on Easter Sunday night over ten apostles—Judas having died and “doubting Thomas” being absent.
The observance of Pentecost today and for much of the Church’s history is determined by the date of Easter, which as we know is moveable year to year. Because of the importance of the Passover in the Passion narratives of the Gospels, Christians have generally—with some exceptions—dated Easter to coincide with Passover, which occurs on the first sabbath after the first full moon of spring, i.e., the Hebrew method of reckoning. For Roman Catholics the present liturgical discipline marks the possible dates of Easter from March 22 to April 25. Pentecost can thus be celebrated as late as June 13 in some years; this year’s date is considered a late Pentecost.
In the Liturgical reforms of Vatican II, the Church attempted to reinforce the unity of the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecostal feasts. If you read St. John’s Easter narrative carefully, he depicts the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost events as all occurring on Easter Sunday! Hence the strict formal ending of the Easter Season with Pentecostal Vespers. This was not always the case. In fact, until the new missal was released in 1970, the Easter Season extended till Trinity Sunday, a week later. The week between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday was quite busy; the summer “Ember Days” or traditional days of prayer and fasting were observed in the week after Pentecost.
If you visit the USCCB Lectionary for the “Extended Vigil Mass of Pentecost” you will get some feeling for the older Saturday Pentecost Vigil from the Tridentine Rite Mass observed prior to 1970. In Philadelphia there is currently an effort to restore the Pentecost Vigil of older times, which does bear some resemblance to the Easter Vigil, but even its promoters admit that there is not much enthusiasm for restoration at the present time.
It is my subjective judgment that in the years since the Council there has been a dearth of discussion and healthy catechetics about the influence of the Holy Spirit upon our Church and our sacraments. At the Vigil Mass last night, my pastor observed that the dramatic appearances of the Spirit in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have tended toward a definition of Spirit experience today as only isolated and dramatic events in the life of the Church and its members. I was catechized in that fashion for my sixth grade Confirmation in 1960, and I remember feeling “let down” after the ceremony; I also had expected Jesus to talk to me after my First Communion, too. From what I see and hear today, the issue of “promise versus product” is just as real today.
When I was a pastor in the 1980’s there was a school of thought that later aged-Confirmation was a more effective way of connecting doctrine and experience. The idea went something like this: if your Confirmation candidates were 17 or 18 years old, they were more mature and better equipped to make a conscious choice to embrace their Baptismal experience and a life in the Spirit-filled Church. As the years went on and I immersed myself into psychology, I learned that developmental maturity is not achieved until around the age of 26. And as I am now in my 70’s I look at the world quite differently than I did even at age 50.
The fallacy of my thinking in my past is weighing all the eggs in the scale of subjective experience and determination. In 2013 the Seton Hill College theologian Timothy Gabrielli wrote Confirmation: How a Sacrament of God's Grace Became All about Us (2013) in which he addresses the overly subjective approach to sacramental experience at the cost of God’s initiative. Although I had criticized some points of his work, in fact he was kind enough to exchange several letters with me for this blog; this correspondence can be found at the end of my Amazon review (click “comments.”). I should add that I am currently reading Gabrielli’s One in Christ: Virgil Michel, Louis-Marie Chauvet, and Mystical Body Theology (2017), an advanced study of the title “Mystical Body of Christ” applied to the life of the Church and its sacramental life; I will be referring to this this work in future posts.
The Feast of Pentecost was called “The Birthday of the Church” in my youth, and no discussion of the Church (technically known as “ecclesiology”) can proceed without addressing the Spirit’s intercommunion with the Church. This past week was another difficult one for the Church in the United States, Poland, and elsewhere. At the very least, one can say that a Church born of the Spirit’s breath has not always impressed many people as a Spirit-filled community (though the sins of some do not negate the virtues of others.) In reflecting upon the Spirit this weekend, it occurred to me that in Luke’s Gospel Jesus, after his baptism, was engaged in intense prayer when the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. Similarly, the Pentecost event occurred after a similar period of intense prayer by the twelve in the upper room.
At the very least, there is a core connection between communion with the Spirit and intense prayer. My pastor was correct to speak of communion with the Spirit in the present and future tense, and not simply as a dramatic scenario. And perhaps the key to a true reform of the Church rests upon a spirit of prayer, an atmosphere where, biblically speaking, the Spirit is always to be found.