Title: Lift Every Voice and Sing, or, The Harp
[Click for larger image view]

June 19th has long been a famous day in the African-American community, where it is remembered and celebrated as “Juneteenth.” In recent days, more and more white Americans have been brought to realize the significance of this day, as tragic events have brought forcefully and painfully to our national attention America’s original sin of racism and injustice.

Juneteenth recalls June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war was over, and that the enslaved were now free. This was over two months after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865, and two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, delivered on January 1, 1863. Yet Black Americans in Galveston remained enslaved until the arrival of General Granger’s regiment overcame local resistance to the idea of liberation.

General Granger issued General Order Number 3, which began:

The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that freedom came so late to Galveston. After all, while the decades following the Civil War saw the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, promising freedom and equality, they also saw the betrayal of that promise, as with at best the indifference, and at worst the connivance of the federal government, the rights that the Constitution conveyed to all Americans were denied.

Corridor in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Whatever the Constitution said, the social norms of white supremacy were codified in Jim Crow laws, and enforced by horrific violence. The Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama honors the memory of more than 4,400 black people lynched in the United States–hanged, burned, murdered, tortured to death– between 1877 and 1950.

Image may contain: one or more people, child and text

That legacy of violence is not past. Just in this last month, the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, the police killings of Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, and most of all, the horrific videos of George Floyd‘s public murder by a Minneapolis police officer, have prompted not only a national, but a world-wide outcry against racial injustice and police brutality.

Some readers of this blog may be wondering what any of this has to do with the Bible, which is after all the subject of this blog. That, as it happens, is a very good question. It is no accident that nineteenth-century abolitionists did not base their arguments on Scripture. The bulk of the biblical witness seemed to be on the opposite side of the issue–indeed, African slavery was justified then on biblical grounds.  After all, both testaments assume the existence of slavery, and the New Testament repeatedly urges slaves to be obedient to their masters (Eph 6:5; Col 3:22; 1 Peter 2:18).  

While I was studying for my doctorate at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, my library carrel was for a time near a tall shelf of books written by Bible scholars teaching and writing at that distinguished Southern school in the years prior to the Civil War. Their books noted, rightly, that the Bible never challenges the institution of slavery. Indeed, some argued that slavery had been a boon for the African people, civilizing these savages and introducing them to the Christian gospel.

What those white antebellum Bible scholars could not see, but new African American Christians could, were texts such as Paul’s statement, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Somehow those distinguished Bible scholars could not see that the heart of the Hebrew Bible–called by philosopher Emil Fackenheim the “root experience” of the Jewish people–was the exodus out of Egypt: God’s action to set slaves free.  Sadly, it still remains possible for us to read the Bible from cover to cover and somehow miss the passion for justice that runs like a river from Genesis to Revelation. Similarly, in white America, racism remains invisible to those who, thanks to white privilege, do not–or cannot–see it, over 150 years after that first Juneteenth.

Community and equality, cooperation and justice, mutual respect and mutual regard are biblical principles. Far from being unreachable ideals, they are the only way that the world truly works, reflecting the identity of the Creator, who is in Godself a community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When any culture elevates one person, class, or race over another, and exalts taking and having over giving and sharing, life itself breaks down. No wonder our economy, our world, and our church are in trouble!

In 2019, Gov. Tom Wolf declared Juneteeth a holiday in Pennsylvania, following the unanimous passage of a bill establishing this holiday in the state House and Senate. “Proud to designate June 19 as #Juneteeth National Freedom Day to commemorate the ending of slavery in the United States,” the Democratic governor tweeted that day. “On this day, let us recognize the importance of continuing to build a nation that truly reflects the self-evident truth that all people are created equal.” This Juneteenth, may we Christians embrace that message, which is at the core of the gospel. As Jesus Christ himself has said,” you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. . . . Therefore, if the Son makes you free, you really will be free” (John 8:31-36).


The photograph at the head of this blog is from “Art in the Christian Tradition,” an on-line gallery linked to the lectionary, managed by The Vanderbilt Divinity School Library. The image comes from The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP, April 1939. The sculpture by Augusta Savage (1892-1962) appeared in the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It is called “Lift Every Voice and Sing, or, The Harp,” and was inspired by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson’s hymn, “Lift Every Voice:” sometimes called the African American national anthem.


Pentecost and Diversity

In the account of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-21, Jesus’ followers were waiting together in Jerusalem as he had commanded them, praying in an upper room, when “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak” (Acts 2:4). Boiling out of that room and into the streets, they met Jewish pilgrims from all over the Roman world, who had come to Jerusalem for Pentecost. These visitors discovered, to their astonishment, that they could understand Jesus’ Galilean followers perfectly:

Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them?  How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language?  Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages! (Acts 2:7-11).

As many readers of this passage have realized, Luke’s account of Pentecost alludes to the Babel story in Genesis 11:1-9.  Traditional readings of the Tower of Babel story see it as a warning against unchecked ambition, or hubris. The sin of Babel is the tower, with which they sought to reach the heavens on their own. It is to halt this prideful ambition that God curses them by confusing their languages, stopping the construction and forcing them to divide into language groups and scatter.  We sometimes refer to the profusion of the world’s languages and the scattering of humanity as the “curse of Babel,” and so to the Spirit’s gift of tongues at Pentecost as undoing that curse.

The "Little" Tower of Babel - Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563 ...But as Theodore Hiebert has observed (“The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126 [2007]: 29-58), that traditional reading misses the reason the text of Genesis itself gives for building the city and the tower:

Come, let’s build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth (Gen 11:4)

Sure enough, when God decides to act (Gen 11:5-7), God says nothing about the tower, or hubris—or indeed, about punishment. God acts because the people are about to succeed in their goal of remaining “one people” with “one language,” so that “all that they plan to do will be possible for them.”  This is neither a story condemning the sin of unchecked ambition, nor an account of divine punishment for that sin.   It is about God stepping in to ensure difference and diversity, just as humans are about to succeed in enforcing sameness.

Recordando José Míguez Bonino, | Cláudio CarvalhaesWhy does God do this? Perhaps because, as Argentinian Methodist theologian José Míguez Bonino wrote,

God’s intention is a diverse humanity that can find its unity not in the domination of one city, one tower, or one language but in the ‘blessing for all the families of the earth’ (Genesis 12:3)” (“Genesis 11:1-9: A Latin American Perspective,” in Return to Babel: Global Perspectives on the Bible, ed. Priscilla Pope-Levison and John R. Levison [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999], 15-16).

Racial and cultural diversity is not a problem to be overcome. It is a gift of God, to be celebrated and embraced.  By squelching difference, the people of Babel were standing in the way of the diversity of expression that is God’s intent for human beings.

In 1956, Rev. W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas—at that time the largest Baptist church in the world—was invited to address the General Assembly of the South Carolina legislature on the subject of racial segregation. In his cringingly self-revealing remarks, Criswell condemned

scantling good-for-nothing fellows who are trying to upset all the things that we love as good old Southern people and good old Southern Baptists. . . . Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision. . . to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. . . Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends (cited in Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016], 167).

Rev. Criswell could just as well have spoken for the First Church of Babel. The denizens of that place built their city and their tower to ensure that they would stay together homogeneously: so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth (Genesis 11:4).  But being “dispersed over all the earth” was exactly what God intended for humanity!  The old priestly traditions in Genesis state this plainly. The priestly accounts of creation and flood alike declare that humanity was to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28; 9:1). As the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 concretely describes, this meant not only being geographically scattered, but ethnically and culturally diverse.  The real curse of Babel is not being scattered abroad.  It is staying where we are comfortable and unchallenged, in “my church,” “my school,” with “my friends.” Babel itself, in its safe, comfortable, stultifying sameness, is the curse.

Please notice that Luke does not say that the people all started speaking the same language—that their cultural and ethnic distinctiveness was denied or undone. The Spirit does not return them to “one language and the same words” (Gen 11:1). Instead, each group hears God’s praise in its own language.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in Conversation

In Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” she relates her first encounter with her first college roommate, in America:

She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. . . . My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

We should not be surprised that the members of the Pentecost crowd all hear the Gospel in their own languages. The entire Bible warns us against, and models for us how to escape, the danger of the single story.  Scripture rarely gives us a single story about anything!  At the beginning of our Bible, we find two different accounts of the creation of the world: one in Genesis 1:1—2:4a, and another in Genesis 2:4b-25.   Our New Testament opens with four gospels, presenting four quite different accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Scripture itself calls for us to listen with open ears and open hearts for the truth told, not as a single story, but as a chorus of voices.  Sometimes those voices are in harmony, sometimes they are in dissonance, but always they are lifted in praise to the God who remembers all our stories, the comedies and tragedies alike, and catches them up together in love, forgiveness, and grace.  Friends, may we honor the Spirit’s gift of Pentecost by welcoming one another, and listening to one another, in all our diversity.


The Scandal of the Ascension

Title: Church of the Holy Sepulchre [Click for larger image view]The Feast of the Ascension comes forty days after Easter.  This year, that is today, May 21.  Typically, Protestant churches don’t make much of this: partly, because the Feast always falls on a Thursday, but mainly, I suspect, because we are vaguely embarrassed by the whole idea of the Ascension.  In our jet-setting days, ascension is no big deal: most of us have gone up in airplanes, flying from one airport to another in a different city, state, or nation.  Further, we know that if you keep going up, you do not breach the dome of the firmament and enter the divine realm of celestial glory.  Instead, you leave the atmosphere of our planet, and enter the unimaginable vastness of space: where there is no longer “up” or “down.”

An Astronaut's View from Space | NASASo, what could the Ascension possibly mean to us today?  Facebook friend Brandon J. Moore puts it rather well: “Today is the feast of the Ascension. If you’re not sure what it’s about: it’s the day we celebrate when Jesus started working from home!”  Perhaps the most scandalous (as well as the most distinctively Christian) doctrine of our faith is the Incarnation: the confession that the eternal God, who is beyond time and space, has entered our reality of spacetime in the concrete form of one particular person, Jesus of Nazareth.  The Resurrection and the Ascension double down on this confession, for the resurrected Christ is an embodied Christ (as all the Gospel accounts record; for example, see Lk 24:36-43; Jn 20:26-29), and it is that embodied Christ who, ascending into glory, returns to the Godhead (Acts 1:1-11), and starts working from home!  The Incarnation, in other words, was not a short visit, or a temporary jaunt.  The Second Person of the Trinity is, eternally, Jesus of Nazareth.

The phrase “scandal of particularity” (German das Ärgernis der Einmaligkeit) is frequently used in Reformed theology today.  It was coined around 1930 by German theologian Gerhard Kittel, editor of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (and, sorrowfully, a Nazi sympathizer and an anti-Semite). However, the idea is far older: indeed, scandalous particularity is the whole point of the Incarnation. If God truly was to become incarnate–a person like us–then it would not do for God to become some sort of generic person, whatever that might mean.  None of us are generic persons. We are all specific, particular people, born in a particular time to particular parents in a particular place. If the Word is REALLY to become flesh (John 1:14), it must be particular flesh. So Jesus was a first-century Palestinian Jew, just as I am a twenty-first-century white hillbilly.

Jesus Christ Superstar' Brings Strong Voices To A Familiar Story : NPRWith Judas in “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” we may ask,

Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?

If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation!

Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.

That, however, is precisely the point. We could as easily ask, why not wait until the twenty-second century, or the fiftieth, or beyond?  Who knows what being human might mean in centuries to come? Or, why not come earlier–even much earlier?  If Jesus were to save the Neanderthals, say, doesn’t that mean he would’ve needed to come as a Neanderthal? The answer, of course, is no: any more than, to save Deborah, he would’ve needed to come as a Hebrew woman in the tenth century BCE, or to save St. Augustine, he needed to come as a fourth century CE North African; or to save Martin Luther King, Jr., he needed to come as a twentieth century Southern black man.

The same applies to every possible or conceivable form of life. Should we discover that whales have souls, or cats; should we encounter an alien race from another star system–the answer will be the same. There is, there must be, a scandalous particularity to Incarnation, if it is to mean anything at all.  Otherwise, it is only a pretense: God in a people mask.

Tour Through the Most Stunning Prehistoric Cave Paintings in the WorldAlready, we can learn much about God from other religions on this planet.  Should we one day encounter the faith of an alien civilization, or somehow be able to gain access to the faith that moved the Stone Age cave painters, we could learn from them, too. But we Christians also have something to teach: the grand, unimaginable news that God has really done it–God has entered our reality of time and space in the scandalously particular person of Jesus of Nazareth.  The Ascension declares that that same Jesus remains eternally God, a confession that, as Fr. James Martin, S. J. observes, lends particular power to our prayers:

In these frightening times, Christians may find comfort in knowing that when they pray to Jesus, they are praying to someone who understands them not only because he is divine and knows all things, but because he is human and experienced all things.

Jesus’ resurrection and ascension are also a promise.  For Jesus after all has invited us to share in his invincible life:

Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you?  When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too (John 14:1-3).

Title: The Ascension [Click for larger image view]
That, friends, is news worth celebrating, and sharing!  Happy Ascension Day!

The promise and power of the resurrection were brought home to me this week when I learned that my teacher and mentor, S. Dean McBride, Jr., has died. Dean taught me more than I know how to say, not only by his erudite lectures and conversations, but through his prayers and example. Dean was a man of terrifying intellect, but he was patient with me, and guided me through my doctorate without squelching my own interests and creativity. May light perpetual shine upon you, Dean. Thank you.

Wash and Pray

When and How to Wash Your Hands | Handwashing | CDCAt the advice of the CDC and many other health agencies, we have been washing our hands more frequently than ever before to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.  As a result, like me, you may have found to your chagrin that you did not know how to wash your hands properly!  Specifically, the best advice is that we need to wash our hands for at least twenty seconds.

Since we may not have a stopwatch handy at our bathroom or kitchen sinks, a variety of alternate means for timing our hand-washing have been advanced.  One very common proposal, illustrated to hilarious effect by humorist Dave Barry, is singing “Happy Birthday” twice through.  Many Trekkies have noted that the famous intro to the original Star Trek series and to its sequel Star Trek: The Next Generation takes about twenty seconds to recite.

Wash and Pray | Courageous Christian FatherMy sister Tracey sent me this meme, which has inspired me to time my hand-washing by praying the Lord’s Prayer–combining good hygiene with devotional practice.  According to the Didache, an early Jewish-Christian book of church discipline dating to the late first-early second century CE, the Lord’s Prayer is to be prayed three times a day (Didache 8:11 [3 in Greek]).  Praying while hand-washing more than meets that requirement!

The Didache also gives this text for the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name;
Thy kingdom come;
Thy will be done, as in heaven, so also on earth;
give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our debt, as we also forgive our debtors;
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one;
for Thine is the power and the glory for ever and ever (Didache 8:4-10 [2], translated by J.B. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers)

If you are Presbyterian, Baptist, UCC, or Reformed (or if you grew up in the former E.U.B.), this is likely to look and sound very familiar.  Indeed, with but a few slight differences (and one major one, discussed below), the Didache has the same Greek text as Matthew 6:9-13 (Lightfoot’s translation is very similar to the KJV of this passage).  But for me, growing up Methodist, the Lord’s Prayer ran, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. ”

To be honest, this has thrown some confusion into my hand-washing ritual.  While I grew up praying “Forgive us our trespasses,”  long tenure in Presbyterian institutions, as well as frequent worship in Presbyterian churches, has interjected “Forgive us our debts” into my head.  Further, in worship at my seminary, we pray “Forgive us our sins” as a step toward ecumenism.  The unfortunate consequence is that, when I come to this line in the prayer, I sometimes lose my way.

Apparently, I am not alone!  When I did this jiffy, unscientific poll on my Facebook page, I found the expected range: United Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians (indeed, Anglicans of all stripes), and Roman Catholics all use “trespasses” when praying the Lord’s Prayer; the above-mentioned churches use “debts;” and a smattering of congregations have moved to the English Language Liturgical Consultation‘s 1988 version (also found in the United Methodist Hymnal, 894) which uses “sins.” But several friends commented on the confusion the different versions of the prayer could cause, particularly when moving from context to context.  My friend and colleague in ministry Liddy Gerchman Barlow, Executive Minister at Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, said, “As an ecumenist, I often say ‘forgive us our’ and then stop to hear what everyone else says before continuing.”

Church of the Pater Noster | The Wonder of TruthSo, why these differences in a prayer we claim that Jesus taught us to pray?  The language in the version of the Lord’s Prayer I learned melds the language in the two Gospel citations of this prayer (Matt 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4) with the closely associated teaching on prayer in Matthew 6:14-15 and Mark 11:25.  As the more formal English of the NRSV makes clear in these passages, the prayer in Matthew uses “debts” (Greek opheilemata) and “debtors” (Greek opheiletais), Luke uses “sins” (Greek hamartias), while the additional teachings on prayer in Matthew and Mark use “trespasses” (Greek paraptomata).  Scholar and Middle East missionary Kenneth Bailey offered a possible solution to this variety of Greek expressions.  He proposed that Jesus, teaching in Aramaic, may have used the term khoba’ or khobah, which can mean either a sin or a debt (see the comment by Fr. Dustin on the linked page for the reference).

Of course, an added wrinkle is that there are different ways of rendering the Greek into English, as the ELLC version and the CEB of Matt 6:9-13 show.  Evidently, while John Wycliffe (1395) translated opheilemata in Matt 6:12 as “debts” (as would the 1611 King James Bible), William Tyndale (1526) rendered it as “trespasses.”  Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer (1549) followed Tyndale’s reading, making that wording the standard in the Church of England, and hence in Methodism.

Illuminated Lord's Prayer with Christ, large icon - Ancient Faith ...

It is a bit surprising that the “trespasses” version prevailed in the Roman Catholic Church.  The Latin of both the traditional Roman Catholic Pater Noster (“Our Father”) and the Vulgate of the Matthew passage (curiously, the two are not quite the same!) uses debita (“debts”) and debitoribus (“debtors”).  Still, the English language Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Four, Section Two not only teaches the version with “trespasses,” but curiously claims, “The liturgical tradition of the Church has retained St. Matthew’s text”!

In Catholic practice as in the more liturgical Episcopal and Lutheran contexts, the concluding doxology, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever,” is added by the priest.  Indeed, critical Greek texts of the New Testament note that the doxology in Matt 6:13 is not found in the oldest and best texts of the Gospel, and so while it was retained in the KJV, in most modern English translations these words of praise are moved to a footnote.  Still, their inclusion in the Didache confirms their ancient pedigree.  It was common practice to extemporize words of devotion and praise at the end of public prayers; that this particular doxology became fixed in the tradition so early shows that it was a frequent favorite.

King David Painting | Guercino Oil Paintings

Its Old Testament source may be a surprise. 1 Chronicles 29:10-22a presents the last words of King DavidIt is certainly appropriate that, in Chronicles, David’s last words are words of praise to God, an invitation to the people to join in worship and praise, and a blessing on his son and successor Solomon. 1 Chronicles 29:11 will sound particularly familiar:

To you, LORD, belong greatness and power,
    honor, splendor, and majesty,
        because everything in heaven and on earth belongs to you.
Yours, LORD, is the kingship,
    and you are honored as head of all.

The concluding doxology of the Lord’s Prayer plainly derives from this passage. In David’s last words, however, these words do not conclude his prayer, but rather open it. God’s kingship is the beginning point of David’s prayer. God alone is the source of all power and rulership (1 Chr 29:12-13): something Solomon would have done well to heed.

I invite you, friends, to join me in timing your hand-washing to the praying of the Lord’s Prayer.  Let us join the scrupulous care this pandemic enforces concerning outward, physical cleanliness to a like concern for our inward, spiritual hygiene.  Together let us wash and pray, praying as our Lord has taught us.

AFTERWORD:  For a fabulous rendition of Albert Hay Malotte’s musical setting of the Lord’s Prayer by Andrea Bocelli, go here.


Are We There Yet? Pandemic and the End-times, Part 5: The Last Battle and the Final Judgment


The Last Judgement by Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel, Rome)

FOREWORD:  I started this series of five blogs on March 14, in response to a question from my students:

Specifically, is this the end of days? I have heard a number of students joke and comment about this, and I think the jokes and comments about the apocalypse do indicate a small underlying fear. Among the wildfires in Australia, the tornados in the south, the locusts in Eastern Africa currently, and now this virus … I can definitely see where they are coming from!

Back then, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where I teach, had already made the decision to cancel in-person classes, and to close the campus.  Soon thereafter, Pennsylvania’s governor issued an order for citizens to shelter in place.

Now, Governor Wolf has suggested that May 8 may be the date for us to begin re-opening, slowly, carefully, and by stages.  Nationally, it appears that we may have crested the wave of this pandemic, and that social distancing and other preventive measures may have done their work.  Constant testing and vigilance, and a willingness to return to lock-down if needed, are going to remain necessary until an effective treatment for COVID-19, and ultimately a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, are available.  Still, we can be cautiously optimistic.  Praise the Lord!

I hope that this series has been useful to all who may have been asking if this pandemic was a sign of the end-times.  I also hope it has been a help to any who were interested in, and willing to listen to, what the Bible says about the end of the world, and the ends–that is, the purpose and plan–of God.

In Revelation 20:7-10, John describes history’s final battle in a vision drawing particularly on the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. As in Ezekiel 38—39, the names Gog and Magog represent the final enemies of God’s people. But in Ezekiel, Gog of Magog is the leader of an alliance of kingdoms (Ezek 38:1-6), while in Revelation 20, Gog and Magog symbolize “the nations that are at the four corners of the earth” (Rev. 20:8). In Ezekiel, the LORD brings Gog against Jerusalem (Ezek 38:4); but in Revelation, Satan deceives the nations into rebellion against God and all God’s people (Rev 20:8). In both Ezekiel and Revelation, Gog’s attack comes as a shock: the battle with Gog comes after Israel’s restoration and renewal (Ezek 38:8), while in Revelation, Gog and Magog emerge after a thousand years of Christ’s rule on earth (Rev 20:1-7). As Jim Durlesser writes, “The message of the Gog oracle is that sin, oppression, and the brutality of war are not vanquished without significant effort, and that we ought not become lax or over-confident” (“A Study of Apocalyptic Literature in the Old Testament,” in Approaching the New Millennium: Student Book, ed. Eleanor A. Moore [Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1995], 34).  In the end, as both Ezekiel and Revelation affirm, victory belongs to God alone (Ezek 38:18-23; Rev 20:9).

The defeat of Gog, Magog, and Satan culminates in the final judgment, after which the condemned are cast into the lake of fire (Rev 20:11-15). With the universe now purged of evil, Death and Hades are themselves thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:14; the CEB has “the Grave” here for the Greek Hades, which the Septuagint uses to translate the Hebrew Sheol: the underworld, or the place of the dead).  Now that Death itself has died (see also Isa 25:7–8; Dan 12:1–3), the world to come is ushered in: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea [an ancient image of chaos] was no more” (Rev 21:1).  Here again John, who was steeped in the language and imagery of Scripture, is drawing upon an Old Testament text: this time, alluding to Isaiah 65:17-18:

Look! I’m creating a new heaven and a new earth:
    past events won’t be remembered;
    they won’t come to mind.
Be glad and rejoice forever
    in what I’m creating,
    because I’m creating Jerusalem as a joy
    and her people as a source of gladness.

Heavenly Jerusalem | Fol. 140v | The Morgan Library & Museum

In John’s vision, the New Jerusalem is a massive golden cube, 1,500 miles long, wide, and high (Rev 21:16)!  I agree with Craig Koester (Revelation, AB 38A [New Haven: Yale, 2014], 816) and Mathias Rissi (The Future of the World: An Exegetical Study of Revelation 19.11-22.15, Studies in Biblical Theology, Second Series 23 [Napierville, IL: Allenson, 1972], 62-63) that the most likely parallel for this image is the inner room of the temple, called the Most Holy Place.  This chamber, where the Ark of the LORD was kept, was a perfect cube, and its walls were lined with gold (1 Kgs 6:20; Ezek 41:4). The point is that the entire city is the holy dwelling place of God, where all God’s people are invited to live.

As in Ezekiel’s vision of the ideal city, John’s new Jerusalem has twelve gates, named with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (see Ezek 48:30-35). However, these gates are never shut (Rev 21:25)–which, since the whole reason for fortified city gates was to keep people out, subverts their purpose entirely!  The light of God’s glory streams its invitation out of the city into the world outside, and John says, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. . . . People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev 21:24-26, emphasis mine).  After seeming to be destroyed forever, the nations are unexpectedly included in the world to come.

Mathias Rissi (The Future of the World, 77-78; see also Koester, Revelation, 822) underlines how surprising this message of inclusion is:

Throughout the book [the kings of the earth] are a clearly defined entity, a collective expression for the holders of world-wide political power who place themselves at the disposal of the Antichrist (17.2, 18). In the end, they hurl their entire massed power against God and his church (16.14; 19.9); but then, under the effect of Christ’s word, they will collapse and die together with their armies (19.19-21). Having been destroyed, they belong now to the ‘dead’, of whom 20.15 speaks. According to God’s judgment they will fall prey to the ‘second death’.

The kings of the earth are destroyed in Revelation’s final judgment.  Yet somehow, here they are, coming through the open gates into God’s holy city! Perhaps after all the lake of fire is not the end. Rissi (The Future of the World, 78) suggests that just as there is a “second death” in John’s visions (Rev 20:14; 21:8), there must be a “second resurrection”:

In 20.6 John calls the resurrection of the church of Jesus ‘the first resurrection’, and he praises all who will have part in it, for whoever is not caught up in it must await the awful reality of judgment in the lake of fire, and can achieve life only through the judgment. This redemption event which finally abolishes the reality of judgment must be a second resurrection which is presupposed by the mention of a first. For the second resurrection—in analogy to the first and second death, both of which signify judgment—can only be a saving reality.

Coming again to Revelation 21:24-26 not long ago in my studies, I was puzzled that I hadn’t seen this before, when as a young Christian I used to pore over these passages, looking for signs of the end.  Perhaps it was because, as a young Fundamentalist, I saw what I knew the text said, and not what was actually there on the page.  Then again, it may be that I didn’t see it because my Bible didn’t say it!  Intriguingly, Rev 21:24  in the old King James Version reads “And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it” (emphasis mine).


This translation is based, not on the best Greek text of Revelation, but on ErasmusTextus receptus, which adds ton sozomenon (“the ones who are saved”) following ta ethne (“the nations”) in Rev 21:24. While the reason for adding this phrase is clear, its origin is mysterious: neither the Vulgate nor the majority Byzantine Greek text have this addition, and the critical Nestle-Aland text, Novum Testamentum Graece, does not even list it as a minor variant to be considered.

The seeming contradiction in Revelation regarding the fate of the nations, which evidently prompted Erasmus to add an explanatory note to his Greek text, is not a feature of Revelation alone.  Indeed, it seems likely that, as with so many images and themes in this book, John was inspired by a passage from the Old Testament: specifically, by Zechariah 14.

Themes and images used in later apocalypses appear throughout the book of Zechariah: for example, the angelic interpreter in Zech 1:9, 19; 2:3-5; 4:10-14; 5:3, 6-8, 10-11; 6:5-6; compare Dan 7:15-16; 8:15-17; Rev 1:1-2; the four horsemen in Zech 1:7-17; 6:1-8; compare Rev 6:1-8; and the horns in Zech 1:18-21 (2:1-4 in Hebrew); compare Dan 7:24; Rev 17:9–11.   However, Zechariah 14 is a full-blown apocalypse which starkly describes the final battle between the nations and Jerusalem (compare Dan 11:40—12:1; Ezek 38—39; Rev 20:7-10). As in Ezekiel, it is the LORD who gathers “all the nations against Jerusalem in battle” (Zech 14:2; compare Zech 12:2; Ezek 38:8; Rev 20:8). But at the moment when all seems lost, the LORD intervenes: “The LORD will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle” (Zech 14:3; compare Dan 12:1; Rev 20:9). God the Divine Warrior stands astride the Mount of Olives, which splits in two (Zech 14:4-5; compare Nah 1:5; Hab 3:10), forming a new valley, through which Jerusalem’s population escapes. Once the people are safe, “The LORD my God will come, and all the holy ones with him” (Zech 14:5).

Jerusalem’s security is guaranteed by a death blow to the nations: God sends a plague (!) that rots the flesh of “all the peoples who swarmed against Jerusalem” (Zech 14:12). Panic-stricken, Jerusalem’s enemies will turn on one another (Zech 14:13; compare 2 Chr 20:23-24; Ezek 38:21).  So the LORD and the LORD’s people are victorious, and their enemies come to a particularly messy end.

Sukkot | Builders of Jewish Education

Yet despite the sweeping devastation of plague and war, the enemies of Jerusalem are not after all utterly destroyed: “All those left from all the nations who attacked Jerusalem will go up annually to pay homage to the king, the LORD of heavenly forces, and to celebrate the Festival of Booths” (14:16). The nations come to Jerusalem year after year, to worship the LORD and to celebrate Sukkot! This autumn pilgrim feast is an appropriate time for the nations to come to Jerusalem, as it is also the time set for the reading and veneration of Torah (Deut 31:10-11; Neh 8:13-18). The nations, Zechariah says, join the faithful of Israel in proclaiming fealty to the LORD, and faithfulness to the LORD’s commandments.

Meanwhile, temple holiness has been extended to include all Jerusalem, and even beyond. Every cooking pot in Judah and Jerusalem is fit “to boil the flesh of the sacrifice” (Zech 14:21, NRSV; compare Lev 6:24-30; 22:1-7, 10-16), and even the harness bells of horses in Jerusalem are engraved, “Holy to the Lord” (Zech 14:20)! This democratization of holiness is reminiscent of the Holiness Code (Lev 17—26), but while that tradition sought to make all Israel holy through a heightened sense of purity and impurity extended to each Israelite (“Say to the whole community of the Israelites: You must be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy,” Lev 19:2), here that sanctity is granted by a sovereign declaration of God.

The conclusion of Zechariah 14 seems to back away from this astonishing extension of holiness and inclusion of the nations, as it calls for the expulsion of the Canaanites (Hebrew kena’ani) from “the house of the LORD of heavenly forces” (Zech 14:21). Since Zechariah 14 has already both extended temple holiness to the entire city (Zech 14:20-21), and expressly stipulated the presence of foreigners in the city, at least on Sukkot (Zech 14:16-19), the exclusion of the Canaanites seems odd. With the CEB, we should understand kena’ani here to mean “merchants,” as in Zephaniah 1:11 (compare Hos 12:7[8]; Prov 31:24; Job 41:6; as well as kin’an, meaning “traders,” in Isa 23:8).  Crass commercialism and profiteering are opposed here, not the inclusion of the nations.

Similarly, in the New Testament, all four gospels (Matt 21:12-16; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:13-17) describe Jesus driving the merchants from the temple.  In Mark 11:17, however, this act is paired with radical inclusion:

He taught them, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? [all the Gospels cite Isa 56:7 here, but the phrase “for all nations” does not appear in the other accounts] But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks” [citing Jer 7:11].

Zechariah 14 and Revelation 20–21 share the overall pattern we expect to find in apocalypses: the final battle; the timely intervention of the LORD; the defeat of the LORD’s enemies and the final deliverance of the LORD’s people.  But they also share this astonishing element: the full inclusion of the nations.  We should observe that neither text sets forth a universalism shorn of judgment, destruction, and exclusion.  God’s justice, after all, requires that the final victory must mean the vindication of God’s people, and the end of their enemies.  The gates of the new Jerusalem may be open in invitation, but “Nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is vile and deceitful, but only those who are registered in the Lamb’s scroll of life” (Rev 21:27).  Entry into the city is not unconditional, but presupposes the transformation of any who enter.

Yet, God’s grace and mercy require that God’s final victory must also mean the inclusion even of those thought excluded.  The mention of the “Lamb’s scroll of life” calls back to mind the final judgment scene in Rev 20:12:

I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened. Another scroll was opened too; this is the scroll of life. And the dead were judged on the basis of what was written in the scrolls about what they had done.

While the “scrolls” are a record of the life lived, the “scroll of life” is something else: “In it,” Brian Blount (Revelation: A Commentary, NTL [Louisville, Westminster John Knox, 2009], 374) writes, “names are graciously written—by God (divine passive)—from the beginning of creation.” Blount continues,

By joining these two books—one representing grace, the other representing works—in the same verse, John holds in positive tension these two theological concepts. He recognizes the freedom God gives to each human to make choices, and he weighs the responsibility those choices bear, but he never allows the ultimate eschatological decision to rest with anyone other than God.

We may–indeed we must–affirm the reality of human freedom and responsibility.  Yet God remains God, after all, and reserves to Godself the final disposition of all things.  So Mathias Rissi affirms, “But the victory of grace will in the end be stronger than all the resistance of the unbelief of Israel, and of the nations and kings of the earth!” (The Future of the World, 79).  Apocalypse, remember, is a hopeful literature!  As we stated in the first blog in this series, “We need not worry about the future, friends, not because we know what the future holds, but because we know who holds the future.”  


Are We There Yet? Pandemic and the End-times, Part 4: Antichrist and the Mark of the Beast


In this series, we have been looking at what the Bible says about the end-times, in response to fears that the coronavirus is a sign that the end is nigh.  In the scenario embraced by many American Christians, if the end is near, then the Antichrist must soon be revealed–indeed, as evangelist John Hagee puts it, “The Antichrist is here.”  The Antichrist, many believe, is the coming world ruler, who before the end will force everyone to submit to his rule and wear his sign: the infamous mark of the Beast (Rev 13:16-18).  This is not a new idea.  At the head of this blog is a section of the fresco “The Stories of the Antichrist,” from the Orvieto Cathedral in Umbria, Italy, painted by Renaissance artist Luca Signorelli in 1499-1502.  As Ingrid Rowland observes, apocalyptic fervor gripped Umbria in those days for good (and sadly familiar) reasons:

When the fifty-five-year-old Signorelli climbed up The Rock to earn the hundred and eighty scudi he was paid for this commission, the streets of Orvieto wound among half-ruined buildings of dark volcanic stone; only the Cathedral’s white-and-gray striped marble facade lifted the general gloom. Plague claimed two or three victims a day. The city’s official governor was none other than Cesare Borgia. It must have been relatively easy in that setting for Signorelli to imagine what the end of the world might look like.

Likely candidates for the role of Antichrist have been depressingly common over the years.  My great-grandfather Anderson Boggs, who was a circuit rider in West Virginia and Kentucky, identified the Beast of Revelation 13 with Kaiser Wilhelm.  In World War II, Hitler was a common candidate; later, one or another leader of the former Soviet Union.  I have in my office files a mimeographed screed identifying Ronald Reagan as the Antichrist (Rider on a white horse?  Six letters each in Ronald, Wilson, and Reagan?), and Barack Obama has also been cast in that role.  Some today identify the mark of the Beast with UPC codes, while others insist that the Pope or the United Nations  is the Antichrist.  Seventeen years ago, John Hagee confidently described the Antichrist:

On March 16, 2003, on the eve of the United States’ invasion of Iraq, Pastor John Hagee took to the pulpit to warn of the coming Antichrist. In his sermon, “The Final Dictator,” Hagee described the Antichrist as a seductive figure with “fierce features.” He will be “a blasphemer and a homosexual,” the pastor announced. Then, Hagee boomed, “There’s a phrase in Scripture used solely to identify the Jewish people. It suggests that this man [the Antichrist] is at least going to be partially Jewish, as was Adolph Hitler, as was Karl Marx.”

In the context of the book of Revelation, the identity of the Beast is plain.  When Revelation 17:9 says that the seven heads of the Beast are seven hills, no reader in the Roman period could miss the allusion: the city of seven hills, always and everywhere, was Rome.  John did not envision some distant future.  Rather, as is stated over and over again in this book (Rev. 1:1; 2:16; 3:11; 6:11; 22:6–7, 12, 20), John believed that the end of the world, and so of the oppressive power of Rome, would come soon. 

The mark of the Beast in Rev 13:16-18, like the mark of God on the faithful (Rev 7:3), indicates ownership.  For John, a choice must be made as to whether one stands for Christ, or with Rome: there can be no middle ground (Rev 3:15-16).  The number 666 refers to human hubris: seven is the number of perfection; six is the number of imperfect humanity (in Rev 13:18, the Greek arithmos anthropou could be read, “a human number”), which still falls short of seven no matter how often you write it!  But 666 also likely refers to the vicious emperor Nero (54-68 CE), first to persecute the church.  In Hebrew, letters also stand for numerals, so names are also numbers: for example “David” adds up to fourteen (note how Matthew uses this in Matt 1:1-17).  Nero’s name and title in Hebrew letters (Neron Qesar) add up to 666.

Frei Clemente Rojão: O Segundo Anticristo, o Falso Profeta

John, who identifies the seven heads of the Beast as kings as well as hills, says, “One of its heads appeared to have been slain and killed, but its deadly wound was healed. So the whole earth was amazed and followed the beast” (Rev 13:3).  Although Nero had committed suicide in 68 CE, there were persistent rumors that he was still alive, and had fled to the Parthians, where he was raising a conquering army.  Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius both speak of imposters claiming to be Nero, and the Jewish apocalypse Syballine Oracles both credits that rumor (4:119-123, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, ed. James H. Charlesworth [Garden City, NT: Doubleday, 1983], 387; 5:137-154, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 396-97), and identifies this Nero redivivus as the instigator of the world’s last great war (5:361-396, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha401-402). Similarly, it seems, John believed that God was about to deliver the world and the church by bringing about Rome’s destruction, following Nero’s imminent invasion from the east.

John’s vision of the Beast was in turn inspired by Daniel’s vision of the four beasts (Dan 7):  four world kingdoms, culminating in the Greek empire established by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, which Daniel said would be the  last.  When Daniel was written, Palestine was ruled by the cruel Greek despot Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BCE).  But, Daniel declared, soon the heavenly armies, led by the archangel Michael, would intervene:

At that time, Michael the great leader who guards your people will take his stand. It will be a difficult time—nothing like it has ever happened since nations first appeared. But at that time every one of your people who is found written in the scroll will be rescued.  Many of those who sleep in the dusty land will wake up—some to eternal life, others to shame and eternal disgrace.  Those skilled in wisdom will shine like the sky. Those who lead many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever and always (Dan 12:1-3).

Antiochus died, and his oppressive regime with him: but of course, the world did not end in the mid-second century BCE.  Later Jewish readers, as well as Christian readers such as the John of Revelation, identified Daniel’s fourth kingdom with Rome (2 Esdras 12:10-12; Rev 17:9): but of course, the world did not end with the fall of Rome, either.  In all the generations since, the promise of God’s deliverance has been continually re-read, and applied to new situations, in the confidence that God’s people will be preserved, and God’s faithfulness will prevail, whatever beasts may emerge to claim the world’s allegiance.

So, what of the Antichrist?  Surprisingly, the term “antichrist” (Greek antichristos) does not appear in the book of Revelation at all.  It is found only four times in Scripture: in 1 John 2:18, 22 and 4:3, and 2 John 7.  The word may have been coined by the author of 1 and 2 John, who identifies himself simply as the Elder.  In these short books, antichristos refers not to one person, but to many: indeed, the Elder warns of a spirit of antichrist.  Tragically, according to the Elder this spirit comes out of the church itself:

They went out from us, but they were not really part of us. If they had been part of us, they would have stayed with us. But by going out from us, they showed they all are not part of us (1 John 2:19).

But the Elder expresses confidence in the community, who know the truth and so will not be mislead by lies (1 Jn 2:20-21).  In fact, the distinguishing mark of antichristos IS the Lie: the denial of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.

The Elder addresses antichristos particularly in his teaching regarding spiritual discernment (1 Jn 4:1-6):

Dear friends, don’t believe every spirit. Test the spirits to see if they are from God because many false prophets have gone into the world. This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a human is from God, and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world. You are from God, little children, and you have defeated these people because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world. So they speak from the world’s point of view and the world listens to them. We are from God. The person who knows God listens to us. Whoever is not from God doesn’t listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

In the New Testament, the rise of false prophets is often a sign of the last days (so Matt 24:11, 24:24//Mark 13:22; and Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10).  That is also the position of the Elder in 1 John.  But for this Christian teacher, discerning true prophecy from false is straightforward: as in 1 John 2:22, the denial of Jesus is the evidence of antichrist.  In 1 John 4, antichristos specifically denies the Incarnation:

This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a human is from God, and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world (1 Jn 4:2-3; see also Jn 1:14)

Conversely, the confession of Christ is the means to victory over sin and evil, “because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4).  This leads to a test in practice: the true spirit of Christ rather than antichristos is shown in Christlike love for one another and for God (1 Jn 4:7—5:5).

God Is Love Collage by Josette Atme | Saatchi Art

1 John 4:7-8 is the Golden Text of the entire Bible:

Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.

What an extraordinary confession: the greatest power in the universe is self-giving, sacrificial love!  This affirmation parallels the most famous text in Scripture, John 3:16-17:

 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Jesus is the demonstration and proof of God’s love (see also Rom 5:8).

In 2 John, the Elder warns again about antichristos, which denies “that Jesus Christ came as a human being” (2 Jn 7).  But this means more than rejecting the theological doctrine of the incarnation.  The Elder follows Jesus’ example in proclaiming the new commandment of love (2 Jn 5-6; 1 Jn 2:7-8), and it is in connection with the love commandment that his warnings about antichristos are sounded.  The spirit of antichrist denies Christ by denying Christlikeness: the way of love followed, enabled and empowered by Jesus.

So, where is the spirit of antichristos manifest in our world?  Not, to be sure, in UPC codes, or the UN, or the Vatican, or in the gay part-Jewish dictator of Hagee’s xenophobic nightmares.  Rather, the spirit of antichrist is found wherever professing Christians claim to speak in God’s name, but denying Christ’s love, speak death rather than life.  For example, right now, it is necessary for everyone to practice social distancing–not out of fear, simply to avoid contracting COVID-19, but out of responsibility to our neighbors, to slow the spread of the disease: a strategy that seems to be working. Since we may not know whether or not we indeed are carrying the novel coronavirus, we all need to act as though we were infected.  Not only is there nothing noble, Christian, or heroic about needlessly getting infected with this virus, it is actively evil to infect someone else willfully.

Image may contain: tree and outdoor

So when, this past week, Christian pastors such as Tony Spell, leader of Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, LA, insisted that their congregations gather despite shelter in place orders, that was the spirit of antichrist at work.  When Christian college president Jerry Falwell, Jr. called his students back to Liberty University, and required his faculty and staff to meet with them, that was the spirit of antichrist at work.  God grant us the courage to condemn the spirit of antichristos, and to pursue the language and practice of love. Let us continue to be examples of Christ’s love as we reach out to each other and to the entire world in solidarity, standing together by sheltering in place.


The Spring of Souls

In the early church, when sisters and brothers met one another in the holy season of Easter, they would not just say “Hello.”  Instead, they would greet one another with a hearty and enthusiastic Christe anesti–“Christ is risen!”–to which the only possible response is Allthos anesti–“He is risen indeed!”

We cannot meet face to face this Easter, in this season of pandemic.  To insist on that contact would be at best irresponsible, and at worst wicked: since we may not know whether or not we are carriers of the virus, we would be risking not only our own health, but the health of those with whom we came in contact.  But when we meet virtually, by phone or screen, we can still use that ancient greeting, and lift up as one, from our separate places, our Alleluias!

In celebration of this holiest of holy days, John of Damascus wrote this glorious hymn in the sixth century.  This hymn, in John Mason Neale‘s translation, is commonly sung today to a tune by Arthur S. Sullivan.  Have a joyous Easter, sisters and brothers: Christe anesti!

Come, you faithful, raise the strain
of triumphant gladness!
God has brought forth Israel
into joy from sadness,
loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke
Jacob’s sons and daughters;
led them with unmoistened foot
through the Red Sea waters.


’Tis the spring of souls today:
Christ has burst his prison,
and from three days’ sleep in death
as a sun has risen.
All the winter of our sins,
long and dark, is flying
from the Light to whom we give
laud and praise undying.

Neither could the gates of death,
nor the tomb’s dark portal,
nor the watchers, nor the seal,
hold you as a mortal:
but today, among your own,
you appear, bestowing
your deep peace, which ever more
passes human knowing.

Alleluia! Now we cry
to our Lord immortal,
who, triumphant, burst the bars
of the tomb’s dark portal;
Alleluia! With the Son,
God the Father praising;
Alleluia! Yet a gain
to the Spirit raising.


Holy Week in a Different Key: The One Whom They Have Pierced

Via Crucis con P. G. Frassati – Oratoriani

For all its otherworldly mysticism, the gospel of John insists, from its first chapter, on the earthiness, indeed the physicality, of Jesus: “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:14).  Nowhere is this more evident than in John’s account of Jesus’ suffering and death, which is full of realistic details that, to many readers, sound like the words of an eyewitness.  One such detail, found only in John, is this report:

It was the Preparation Day and the Jewish leaders didn’t want the bodies to remain on the cross on the Sabbath, especially since that Sabbath was an important day. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of those crucified broken and the bodies taken down.  Therefore, the soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men who were crucified with Jesus.  When they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead so they didn’t break his legs.  However, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.  The one who saw this has testified, and his testimony is true. He knows that he speaks the truth, and he has testified so that you also can believe. These things happened to fulfill the scripture, They won’t break any of his bones. And another scripture says, They will look at him whom they have pierced (John 19:31-37).

Jewish Art and Food by Debra's Pics and Favs | Seder, Passover ...All four Gospels connect Jesus’ last week on earth with Passover.  But while in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’ last supper with his followers is a Passover meal (Matt 26:17-19; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:7-13), in John he is crucified on “Preparation Day,” when the Passover lamb was killed (John 19:14).  The first of the two Scripture citations in this account (John 19:36) actually refers to multiple texts.  Both Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12  direct that the bones of the Passover lamb are not to be broken, while Psalm 34:19-20 avows

The righteous have many problems,
    but the LORD delivers them from every one.
He protects all their bones;
    not even one will be broken.

The breaking of the legs of the crucified was intended to speed their deaths.  If victims of crucifixion were unable to push up to relieve the pressure on their lungs and diaphragm, they would soon suffocate: an end that usually came only after hours, even days, of exposure and suffering.  The religious leaders do not ask a quicker death for Jesus and his fellow sufferers out of mercy or pity, however.  Unburied corpses defile the land (Deut 21:23, Paul’s prooftext for Jesus taking our curse on himself; see Gal 3:13).  Therefore, it is important for these leaders that the condemned men die before sundown, so that they do not die on the Sabbath–particularly this Sabbath of Passover.

Blood and Water From His Side - Chrysostom - Crossroads InitiativeThe executioners see (doubtless to their surprise) that this measure is not necessary for Jesus, who is already dead.  Still, to make certain, they stab him with a spear, “and immediately blood and water came out”–an image that in western Christianity becomes the basis for mystical devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  In John 19:37, the piercing of Jesus’ side prompts a second Bible quotation, which comes (once again) from the second half of Zechariah:

And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn (Zech 12:10, NRSV).

Zechariah here uses a positive image in a negative sense—or at least, in a mournful, penitential one.  As in Joel 2:28-29 (in Hebrew, 3:1-2), God pours out God’s spirit.  But rather than a spirit of prophecy poured out on all people, God pours out “a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (12:10). This spirit sufficiently softens their hearts so that “when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”

But who is this pierced one?  Our Hebrew Bible reads ‘elay ‘eth ‘asher-daqaru: “to me whom they have pierced.”  The third person forms used later in the verse (“mourn for him . . . weep over him”) suggest that perhaps ‘elay should read ‘elaw (“to him”)—a common scribal error.  Accordingly, the NRSV has “the one whom they have pierced.”  The Greek text of John 19:37, which quotes this verse, reads hopsontai eis hon exekentesan, “they shall look at him whom they have pierced,” which seems to be the form of the saying assumed by most early Christian writers (see The Twelve Prophets, ed. Alberto Ferreiro, Ancient Christian Commentary 14 [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2003], 271-73).

However, the Greek Septuagint keeps the first person reference in Zech 12:10, translating the phrase as epiblepsontai pros me anth’ on katorchesanto (“they shall look to me because they mocked”[?]; note that the Greek texts of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotian instead read exekentesan, “pierced”).  The early Christian teacher Theodoret of Cyrus reads, “They will look on me, on the one they have pierced” (Commentary on the Twelve Prophets, trans. Robert Charles Hill [Brookline: Holy Cross, 2006], 269).  The Latin Vulgate also uses the first person (aspicient ad me quem confixerunt; “they shall look upon me whom they have pierced”), as does the old King James Version: “they shall look upon me whom they have pierced.”  The CEB has, “They will look to me concerning the one whom they pierced;” similarly, the Jewish Publication Society’s translation reads “they shall lament to me about those who are slain.” This is a possible, if awkward, reading.  But if the Hebrew text is correct here, as seems likely from the textual evidence, the simplest and best reading is, “when they look on me whom they have pierced.”  Incredible as it seems, this passage refers to an assault upon God by Jerusalem’s leaders (so André LaCocque, “Et aspicient ad me quem confixerunt,” in Thinking Biblically: Exegetical and Hermeneutical Studies, André LaCocque and Paul Ricoeur; trans. David Pellauer [Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998], 410-12).  The one “whom they have pierced” is the LORD.

There is precedent for this in Zechariah 2:8:

The Lord of heavenly forces proclaims (after his glory sent me)
        concerning the nations plundering you:
            Those who strike you strike the pupil of my eye.

Here, those who assault Judah are regarded as though they had poked God in the eye!  Cruelty to those whom God loves is an assault upon the Divine.  No wonder Zechariah 12:10 calls the people of Jerusalem and their leaders to mourn!

Crucifixion of Jesus - WikipediaFrom early on, Christian readers found in Zech 12:10–13:1 a foreshadowing of Jesus’ suffering and death. In the New Testament, this passage is cited not only in John 19:37, but also in Revelation 1:7:

Look, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye will see him, including those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him. This is so. Amen.

Zechariah 12:12 actually refers to a variety of religious and secular leaders, all summoned to mourning and repentance: “The land will mourn, each of the clans by itself.”  But John here follows the Septuagint of this verse, which reads kai kopsetai he ge kata phulas (“the earth shall mourn by tribe”). Everyone on earth, John declares, will see the exalted, returning Christ–and everyone will be brought by this revelation to mourning and repentance.

By contrast, the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr read Zech 12:10 as referring to the Jews, who looking on “him whom they have pierced. . . shall say, ‘Why, O Lord, have you made us to err from your way? The glory which our fathers blessed has for us been turned into shame” (First Apology 52, cited by Ferreiro 2003, 271). Indeed, Hippolytus describes those who crucified Jesus, whom he identifies as “the people of the Hebrews,” wailing when they see “him whom they have pierced,” and repenting—but too late, as they have already been consigned to hell (On the End of the World 40, cited by Ferreiro 2003, 273).

No contemporary Christian can–or should–read these words without shame. Jesus was not killed by the Jews, as the Bible and history alike make utterly plain.  But while absolutely repudiating the anti-Semitism of these ancient authors, we can still learn from them. By identifying the “pierced one” with Jesus, whom they certainly regarded as divine, these early Christian exegetes recognized that in Zech 12:10, God is the offended party.  But while in this verse Jerusalem and its leaders have wounded the LORD, God’s response is not to seek vengeance, but to pour out God’s spirit, and so to bring them to sorrow and remorse.

The reference in Zech 12:10 to mourning “as one mourns for an only child” (Hebrew hayyakhid, “the only one”) recalls other texts depicting an extremity of grief (Jer 6:26; Amos 8:10).  Just as the reference to the firstborn (habbekor) recalls the grim story of the tenth plague in Exodus 12:29-32, and the “terrible cry of agony” when the deaths of the firstborn were discovered, the reference to the only child recalls Genesis 22, where Abraham is commanded to give up “your son, your only son [yekhideka] Isaac, whom you love” (Gen 22:2) and the loss of Jephthah’s only daughter (Hebrew yekhidah) in Judges 11:34.  Christian readers are likely to think of John 3:16, which describes Jesus as God’s only child (Greek monogenes; the same word used in the Septuagint of Jdg 11:34 for Jephthah’s only daughter), given up for us.

Friends, grief is an appropriate emotion for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday: grief, sorrow, and deep penitence, for our Lord Jesus has become flesh in every sense.  Jesus has experienced to the full our abandonment, our betrayal, our violence, our death–even our God-forsakenness (Mark 15:34; Matt 27:46).  Piercing one another, piercing ourselves, we have pierced our Lord as well.  But God’s spirit aims to bring us not merely to sorrow and remorse, but to repentance and so, ultimately, to cleansing and wholeness.  As New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright reminds in a sermon on the cross, John 3:16 does not say “‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’.”




Holy Week in a Different Key: Thirty Pieces of Silver

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HOLY WEEK INTERLUDE:  Next week, we will return to our series about the end-time.  But for now, it seems appropriate to spend some time thinking about this Holy Week, as we reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death, and anticipate his resurrection.

Under the pseudonym Major Vs. Minor, Ukrainian musician Oleg Berg has built an online career by transposing familiar happy songs like Happy Birthday from a major into a minor key, or sad ones like The Godfather theme from a minor into a major key.  Hearing these familiar tunes in a different key has an astounding effect.  The familiar birthday jingle becomes a funeral dirge, while the tragic theme of the Godfather trilogy seems strangely upbeat, even comic, evoking different images altogether.  Listening to this transposed theme, Forrest Wickman of Slate writes,

Do you remember The Godfather, the heartwarming 1972 comedy about one family’s struggles to hold its family business together? The one that had the family rivalry with the Tattaglias, but in which—after a hilarious musical interlude involving singer Johnny Fontane and a talking horse—each family put their differences behind them, in a wild and cathartic cannoli fight, just in time for the christening?

Similarly, I propose, the familiar biblical texts of this Holy Week–so very familiar that, sadly, we may not even hear them anymore!–take on new meaning and new life when we hear them in a different key.  I propose that as we listen to these accounts, we listen also to the passages from the Hebrew Bible that the Gospel writers were themselves reading, which shaped the way that they remembered and communicated the fateful events of Jesus’ last week.  With both themes ringing in our ears, perhaps we will hear in their harmonies and dissonances something new, something we could not hear before.

The Man Who Remembered God - The Armenian Church

Although we may not not know it, some of the most familiar words in the Old Testament to Christian ears come from the last six chapters of Zechariah.  Passages from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion quoting from or alluding to these chapters of Zechariah include the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt 21:5; John 12:15; cf. Zech 9:9), Judas’ thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:15; 27:9-10; cf. Zech 11:12-13), Jesus’ prediction of the disciples’ betrayal (“I will hit the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will go off in all directions”; Matt 26:31//Mark 14:27; cf. Zech 13:7), and the piercing of Jesus’ side (John 19:37; Rev 1:7; cf. Zech 12:10).

Why these chapters in particular?  The heavy dependence of the gospel writers on Zechariah 9–14, particularly in their understanding of Jesus’ suffering and death, likely relates to the intensity of messianic expectation in these chapters. This expectation builds on the royal images implicit throughout Haggai-Zechariah 1-8 (Hag 2:20-23; Zech 3:8; 4:6-10a; 6:9-15) but makes them explicit.   So, Zechariah 9:1-10 speaks not metaphorically of a signet ring (Hag 2:23) or a branch (cf. Zech 3:8; 6:12-13), but quite explicitly of a coming king (9:9-10). A prevalent image in Zech 9–14 is the shepherd, an image commonly used in the ancient Near East for the king (10:3-5; 11:4-17; 13:7-9). Further, Zech 12:7, 8, 10, 12 and 13:1 all explicitly name the “house of David” (Paul Redditt, “The King in Haggai-Zechariah 1—8 and the Book of the Twelve,” in Tradition in Transition: Haggai and Zechariah 1—8 in the Trajectory of Hebrew Theology, ed. Mark J. Boda and Michael H. Floyd [New York: T. & T. Clark, 2008], 78).

That said, it is also plain that, in the final form of Zech 9–14, this messianic expectation is qualified and reassessed. As Paul Redditt observes,

the author apparently had struggled to understand why the glorious future the prophets had predicted had not come to fruition and had concluded that the fault lay with the leadership in Jerusalem, not with God and not even primarily with the populace as a whole (Redditt, “The King in Haggai-Zechariah 1—8,” 79).

As a result, while the perspective of Zech 9–14 in its final form is “not incompatible” with messianic hopes, “it does, however, manifest a level of disenchantment” (Redditt, “The King in Haggai-Zechariah 1—8,” 80).  But that very ambiguity may have been part of the appeal of these chapters to the Gospel writers, struggling to come to terms with the scandal of a crucified Messiah.

Judas Repentant, Returning the Pieces of Silver - Wikipedia

In this blog, we will turn specifically to the thirty pieces of silver Judas is given to betray Jesus.  Only Matthew relates this story:

Then one of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I turn Jesus over to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. From that time on he was looking for an opportunity to turn him in. . . .

When Judas, who betrayed Jesus, saw that Jesus was condemned to die, he felt deep regret. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, and  said, “I did wrong because I betrayed an innocent man.  But they said, “What is that to us? That’s your problem.”  Judas threw the silver pieces into the temple and left. Then he went and hanged himself.  The chief priests picked up the silver pieces and said, “According to the Law it’s not right to put this money in the treasury. Since it was used to pay for someone’s life, it’s unclean.”  So they decided to use it to buy the potter’s field where strangers could be buried.  That’s why that field is called “Field of Blood” to this very day.  This fulfilled the words of Jeremiah the prophet: And I took the thirty pieces of silver, the price for the one whose price had been set by some of the Israelites, and I gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me (Matt 26:14-16; 27:3-10)


While Matthew cites Jeremiah here, the thirty pieces of silver in fact come from Zechariah 11:12-13:

And I said to them,
        “If it appears good to you, give me my wages;
        but if not, then stop.”
        So they weighed out my wages, thirty shekels of silver.
The Lord said to me,
        “Put it in the treasury.
        They value me at too magnificent a price.”
So I took the thirty shekels of silver
        and put them in the treasury of the Lord’s house.

In Zechariah, these verses are part of a larger narrative: a literary sign act, related in Zech 11:4-17.  The LORD appoints the prophet as a shepherd, relating to other shepherds (evidently, secular and religious leaders of the people).  Like him, these other shepherds are hired hands—although with no sense of loyalty to or responsibility for their charges (compare Ezek 34:1-10; John 10:12-13). Because of the rapacity of these false shepherds, who enrich themselves at the flock’s expense (11:5), the flock is doomed: “intended for slaughter” (11:4, 7).

Finally, the prophet gives up on his charges in disgust, and asks his employers (it is unclear who these are understood to represent) for his wages, if they see fit to pay him. The pay he is given—thirty shekels of silver—is a studied insult. In the oldest law code in Scripture, the Covenant Code in Exodus 20:22-23:33, thirty shekels of silver is the price paid to the slave owner when a slave is gored to death by an ox (Exod 21:32). By giving the prophet this wage, the owners of the flock indicate their contempt for the prophet and his labor—they treat him essentially as a slave, not a hired hand.

The prophet repays their contempt with contempt. Refusing to accept “this lordly price at which I was valued by them” (the sarcasm fairly drips!), the prophet gets rid of it, throwing the money, at the LORD’s direction, “into the treasury in the house of the Lord” (Zech 11:13, NRSV). Many English translations of Zech 11:13 follow the Syriac here, which assumes the Hebrew ‘otser (“treasury;” see NRSV, CEB, JPSV); but the Hebrew text before us actually reads yotser (“potter;” see KJV, NIV). The words sound very similar, making the confusion readily understandable—particularly in a passage that is already fairly obscure!

So–what does Matthew do with this strange story from Zechariah, and why does he ascribe it to Jeremiah?  Remember, Matthew’s tradition told him that Judas had betrayed Jesus for money (Mark 14:10-11). Further, Matthew and Luke both have a tradition connecting the money Judas was given for this betrayal to a field called Hakeldama, or the Field of Blood—although they account for that connection, and that name, in very different ways (compare Matt 27:3-10 and Acts 1:18-20).

So–Matthew first relates the amount the religious leaders paid Judas to Zechariah’s thirty silver shekels (Matt 26:15). Perhaps Matthew sees this amount, as in Zech 11:12, as an insult: Jesus is “bought” from his betrayer with the price of a slave in Torah.  Next, Matthew turns to Zech 11:13, where  the money is put in the LORD’s house, given either to the ‘otser (“treasury”) or the yotser  (“potter”).  Finally, Matthew considers how all of this might relate to the purchase of a field. Both the potter and the field find clear resonances in the book of Jeremiah, where the prophet not only goes to a potter’s house at the Lord’s direction (Jer 18:1-12; see also 19:1-13), but also buys a field (Jer 32:1-15)—placing the deed, for good measure, in a pottery jar (32:14)!

Weaving this all together, Matthew presents a narrative involving Judas’ attempt to return the blood money, throwing the spurned coins into the temple (as in Zech 11:13), his subsequent suicide, and the priests’ use of the money to purchase a potter’s field, which is called (as it was purchased with blood money) Hakeldama (Matt 27:3-8). Then, for the fourteenth and final time in his gospel, Matthew relates an event in Jesus’ life to a Scripture reference:

This fulfilled the words of Jeremiah the prophet: And I took the thirty pieces of silver, the price for the one whose price had been set by some of the Israelites, and I gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me (Matt 27:9-10).

In his account of Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade into Jerusalem, Matthew read Zechariah 9:9  literally: Jesus somehow enters Jerusalem mounted on two beasts, both an ass and her colt (Matt 21:6-7)!  Some see this bizarre image as a mistake, prompted by Matthew’s misreading of Zechariah.  But that is unlikely: Matthew, after all, is the most Jewish of the Gospel writers; certainly, he would have known and understood the Hebrew poetic technique of parallelism.  Instead, this wooden, deliberately literal reading is intended to ram the point home, making absolutely certain that the reader cannot miss the connection between Jesus’ actions and the prophet’s words.

Similarly, it is unlikely that the attribution of Matt 27:9-10 to Jeremiah is a mistake—particularly as the alleged “quotation” is not a quote at all, but a web of complex allusions. These two verses capture elements from Exod 21:32, Zech 11:13, and Jer 32:1-15. By ascribing the whole to Jeremiah, Matthew also calls to mind allusions to the potter’s house in Jer 18:1-12.

Image result for JderemiaH sistine

But the allusion to Jeremiah here also accomplishes another implicit purpose for Matthew. In Matthew’s account of the confession at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asks who people say that he is, the disciples do not reply simply “one of the prophets” (as in Mark 8:28); rather, they specifically name the prophet Jeremiah (Matt 16:14).  Matthew of course knows that Jesus is not literally Jeremiah reborn.  He is, as Peter rightly declares in this gospel, “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16).  Still, in the suffering, sorrowful prophet Jeremiah, Matthew found a precursor of Jesus, who like that prophet weeps over Jerusalem (Jer 9:1), and is betrayed by his friends (Jer 20:10).


Are We There Yet? Pandemic and the End-times, Part 3: Apocalypse



In these blogs, we have been reflecting on what the Bible says about the end of the world.  Our study has been prompted specifically by the concern that the COVID-19 pandemic is a biblical sign of the end-times.  So, does the Bible have something to say about our times?

The answer, actually, has a great deal to do with what question we are really asking.  If the question is, does the Bible speak to our times, the answer is emphatically yes!  Certainly, the Bible has plenty to say about God’s presence with us in times like ours.  Father James Martin in particular has a faithful, encouraging, and biblical word for these days:

In these frightening times, Christians may find comfort in knowing that when they pray to Jesus, they are praying to someone who understands them not only because he is divine and knows all things, but because he is human and experienced all things. But those who are not Christian can also see him as a model for care of the sick. Needless to say, when caring for someone with coronavirus, one should take the necessary precautions in order not to pass on the infection. But for Jesus, the sick or dying person was not the ‘other,’ not one to be blamed, but our brother and sister. When Jesus saw a person in need, the Gospels tell us that his heart was ‘moved with pity.’ He is a model for how we are to care during this crisis: with hearts moved by pity. . . . I don’t understand why people are dying, but I can follow the person who gives me a pattern for life.  

However, if the question is, does the Bible speak of our times–that is, does the Bible predict what is happening to us today, or what will happen to us tomorrow–then the answer is no.  The Bible is not a horoscope, Tarot deck, Ouija board, or crystal ball.  The Bible gives us hope, not by revealing to us what will happen tomorrow, but by assuring us that no matter what happens tomorrow, God is, and will be, with us.

The picture at the top of this post shows the famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as painted by Russian artist Victor Vasnetov.  The image comes from Revelation 6:1-8:

Then I looked on as the Lamb opened one of the seven seals. I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!”  So I looked, and there was a white horse. Its rider held a bow and was given a crown. And he went forth from victory to victory.  When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!”  Out came another horse, fiery red. Its rider was allowed to take peace from the earth so that people would kill each other. He was given a large sword.  When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” So I looked, and there was a black horse. Its rider held a balance for weighing in his hand. I heard what sounded like a voice from among the four living creatures. It said, “A quart of wheat for a denarion [a day’s pay for a laborer], and three quarts of barley for a denarion, but don’t damage the olive oil and the wine.”  When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”  So I looked, and there was a pale green horse. Its rider’s name was Death, and the Grave was following right behind. They were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill by sword, famine, disease, and the wild animals of the earth.

John’s four horsemen are drawn from the prophecies of Zechariah (see Zech 1:7-17; 6:1-8).   While Zechariah’s horsemen were messengers of peace and deliverance, however, John’s represent war: from the “glory” of heroism, through the depredations wrought by violence, scarcity with attendant profiteering, and of course, disease and death.  But, what does that word “apocalypse” mean?

In everyday English, “the Apocalypse” is a civilization-ending cataclysm.  The entire genre of “post-apocalyptic” fiction, from the “Mad Max” movies to the “zombie apocalypse” and its aftermath (especially in Robert Kirkman’s comic-book series “The Walking Dead” and the AMC television production based on it) builds on this popular understanding of the word.

Image result for Walking Dead

Yet at its source, “apocalypse” is a surprisingly gentle word.  The Greek apocalupsis does not mean doom and destruction.  It means “uncovering,” “unveiling,” or “a revelation.” This is the first word in the last book of the New Testament, which is accordingly called “Revelation” by Protestant Christians, and the “Apocalypse of John” in Roman Catholic circles.

In biblical studies and related disciplines, the term “apocalypse” is applied not only to the last book of Christian Scripture, but also to a number of other texts, both biblical and extra-biblical, that bear a family resemblance to that strange, visionary book. Daniel, the latest-dated book in the Hebrew Bible (likely from around 164 BCE) is called an apocalypse, as it is more like Revelation than it is like any other book in the Hebrew Bible—just as Revelation is more like Daniel than it is like any other book in the New Testament!  Other passages on the left-hand side of the Bible commonly identified as apocalypses (or sometimes, as apocalyptic prophecy) include Isaiah 24—27, Ezekiel 38—39; Joel 2:28–32 (3:1–5 in Hebrew); and Zechariah 14.  In the New Testament, Mark 13 with its parallels in Matthew 24:1–44 (considered in our last post) and Luke 21:5–33 is commonly called the “Synoptic Apocalypse.” In Jewish literature from the first few centuries before and after the Common Era, we can identify as apocalypses such books as 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and the Assumption of Moses.

Of course, “family resemblance,” while evocative, is too subjective and imprecise to be useful. Most scholars today agree on the definition of “apocalypse” as a literary genre developed in 1979 by the Apocalypse Group of the Society of Biblical Literature Genres Project (John Collins, “Towards the Morphology of a Genre,” Semeia 14 [1979]: 9):

‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.

The essential features of an apocalypse, then, are the revelation of another world to a human seer by a heavenly being.  Sometimes, that other world is the heavenly (or infernal) world (as in 1 Enoch 1—36, called the Book of the Watchers); sometimes, it is the future world (as in Dan 9:20—12:4); sometimes, it is a little of  both (as in Rev 5—6).

We might wonder from this definition how apocalypse is any different than prophecy.  After all, Israel’s prophets do have visions of the divine world (for example, in Isa 6:1-8), and do make predictions about future events (as in Jer 7:1-20).  Indeed, Revelation identifies itself as prophecy (Rev 1:3), and while the Hebrew Bible places Daniel among the Writings (or Kethubim) rather than the Prophets (Nebi’im), our Old Testament follows the Greek Septuagint in placing Daniel between Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve: squarely among the prophetic books.  

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But apocalypses assume a great gulf between the world of the revelation and our human world.  The supernatural worlds of apocalypses are inaccessible from our world–hence the need for supernatural go-betweens to reveal the vision.  The opening verses of Revelation illustrate this well, with a succession of intermediaries (numerals added):

A revelation of Jesus Christ, which God [1] gave him [that is, Jesus, 2] to show his servants what must soon take place. Christ made it known by sending it through his angel [3] to his servant John [4],  who bore witness to the word of God and to the witness of Jesus Christ, including all that John saw (Rev 1:1-2).

It sounds a bit like a trick football play: God [1] hikes to Jesus [2], who hands off to his angel [3], who laterals to John [4]!

Similarly, the future envisioned in apocalypses is infinitely removed from anything that our own efforts can accomplish.  By contrast, the prophet’s message about the future is intended to influence actions in the present.  As a result, as we have seen, prophetic predictions are conditional (to the consternation of Jonah)!  Prophecy speaks the word of the LORD into a particular context–which is why, in the Hebrew Bible, the “historical books” of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings are included among the Nebi’im, or Prophets.  But regarding the future, God remains supremely free to do as God chooses.

Since the point of prophetic proclamation is a call to action in the here and now, the prophets were commanded to proclaim the word of the Lord (see Amos 7:14-15; Jer 1:7-8; Ezek 3:17-21).  The prophet must speak: indeed, Jeremiah laments,

I thought, I’ll forget him;
    I’ll no longer speak in his name.
But there’s an intense fire in my heart,
    trapped in my bones.
    I’m drained trying to contain it;
        I’m unable to do it (Jer 20:9).

In sharp contrast, Daniel is told, “But you, Daniel, must keep these words secret! Seal the scroll until the end time!” (Dan 12:4; compare Dan 8:26; Rev 10:4). Since Daniel is set in the time of the exile and its immediate aftermath, the “future” it describes is indeed distant (although for the persecuted community actually addressed by this book, that time had come).  But the point is that there is no reason for Daniel to announce his revelation of the future to the world, as it can make no difference: “Many will purify, cleanse, and refine themselves, but the wicked will act wickedly. None of the wicked will understand, but those skilled in wisdom will understand” (Dan 12:10). Intriguingly, Revelation reverses this instruction, although like Daniel, it still holds that the fate it describes is unalterable:

Then he said to me, “Don’t seal up the words of the prophecy contained in this scroll, because the time is near.  Let those who do wrong keep doing what is wrong. Let the filthy still be filthy. Let those who are righteous keep doing what is right. Let those who are holy still be holy (Rev 22:10-11).

This notion of a fixed, inevitable, and unchangeable future is distinctly “unprophetic”—and plainly apocalyptic.  Apocalypses are inherently pessimistic about this world, its future, and the capabilities of human action to bring real change.  So, in apocalypses, the future is unfailingly grim: social order and natural order alike will collapse, so that with this world’s end, a new world may begin.

As Paul Hanson observes, “This world-weariness has been the mark of every apocalyptic movement” (“Old Testament Apocalyptic Reexamined,” Interpretation 25 [1971]: 479). Whether resulting from an experience of exclusion (like the marginalized community responsible for Isaiah 25–27), from self-exile (like the Qumran community that treasured 1 Enoch and preserved the Dead Sea scrolls), from persecution (like Daniel’s community) or from the threat of persecution (like the community of John in Revelation), “world-weariness” is a common feature of the apocalyptic mindset.

Indeed, the same can be said for communities that find particular meaning in apocalypses.  It is no surprise that the threats posed by this pandemic, with its attendant economic struggles and social isolation, have turned the minds of many to this literature.  But an apocalyptic turn of mind does not require actual suffering: the perception of exclusion is enough.  A 2017 poll about discrimination in American society conducted by Daniel Cox and Robert P. Jones found that white Evangelicals–who recall are also the group most inclined to believe in the imminence of the Rapture and the Second Coming–are “the only major religious group in which a majority say Christians face a lot of discrimination” in American society. 

As strange as it may seem, given the often bizarre and violent imagery in Revelation and Daniel in particular, these books are meant to be reassuring!  No matter how bad things now appear, or how bad they may become, the future remains securely in God’s hands–which sets us free from crushing concern and despair about what will happen.  As Paul says to the Thessalonians, we are to “encourage each other [the KJV has “comfort one another”] with these words” (1 Thess 4:18).  This is the message of apocalypse–and particularly of our biblical apocalypses. When instead these texts become a source of anxiety, or an excuse for hostility to one another, they have lost their purpose–as have we.